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August 2023 Issue: Our Quineañera Issue
A Retrospective of the Past Fifteen Years


Editor's Note

James R. Adair

This issue marks the culmination of fifteen years of publishing Voices de la Luna, so we're calling it our Quinceañera issue. An online-only issue, it looks back over the past fifteen years and highlights many of the interviews, poems, art, creative nonfiction, and short fiction from the past sixty issues. It is impossible, of course, to select the "best" contributions—we've published so many outstanding pieces over the years!—but I hope you'll get a flavor for the tremendous amount of creativity that has gone into the publication.

Although most of the pieces included in this issue have been published previously, the first two poems have not. They are tributes to two of our own, Jim Brandenburg, one of the cofounders of the magazine, and Carol Coffee Reposa, our longtime poetry editor (and copyeditor extraordinaire). The two poems were written by poets who knew, respected, and loved them, as many of us at Voices de la Luna and in the wider literary community did.

I hope you enjoy this retrospective issue.








Questions for Bridget Drinka

Interviewed by Mo H. Saidi

Associate Professor and Chair of the English Department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Dr. Bridget Drinka is an internationally renowned and honored specialist in Indo-European and historical linguistics. She received her M.S. from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. She has published several classic and scholarly books about the prehistory of the English language. Her forthcoming book, Language Contact in Europe: The perfect tense through history (Cambridge University Press), explores the complex development of a grammatical category as it spread across the map of Europe.


Mo H. Saidi: As an expert in the history and structure of English language, can you help us understand the current explosive expansion of the English Language, especially in the area of new digital words?

Dr. Bridget Drinka: What’s really interesting about the present- day explosion of new linguistic expressions is that they are built squarely on what has gone before: when we create phrases like “google it,” we are simply carrying out a “functional shift”— verbing our nouns, and nouning our verbs—just as Shakespeare did when he wrote “Grace me no grace and uncle me no uncles.” Likewise with texting—the clipping, compounding, and acronym-building is something we’ve been doing for years.


For the last century, with the US following the British Empire as a world power, English speakers have benefitted from the worldwide use of English as a lingua franca. How many people in the world today are speaking or trying to speak English, and do you see another language taking over anytime soon?

While Mandarin, with some 840 million speakers, is the most spoken native language in the world, English is without doubt the most popular second language, with 500 million or so speakers. English has certainly established a foothold as a global language, a position which I don’t see it stepping down from in the near future.


English is known as a melting pot absorbing words from everywhere. When was the most transformative period for the English language and what caused it?

There are many important moments in the history of English, but the Norman Conquest of 1066 was clearly the most monumental. It’s when we acquired our linguistic split-personality: because of this inundation of French terms, we can now say just about anything two ways, the old down-to-earth Germanic way (meal, mud, deer, kinfolk) and the refined way we learned from French (dinner, terrain, venison, relatives).


Even though the majority of words in English have Latin or Greek origins, why is English considered a Germanic language?

Aha! You’ve been reading my final exam for the History of English class. An excellent question. We may have acquired the ability to use numerous French and Latinate forms (there are seven of them in the first part of this sentence, for example), but in everyday life, we still dwell largely in the realm of Germanic: we still use old Germanic terms to refer to family members (mother, father, sister, brother), to count (eight, hundred, thousand, which means a “swollen hundred”), to describe all our basic activities (eat, drink, walk, run, sleep, as well as gulp, sneeze, snore), and to “cuss” (all the four-letter words are Germanic). We also use our old Germanic forms as the indispensible “glue” words—the, is, about, and, etc.


It has been shown that children by the age of seven can easily acquire mastery of another language. Do you have any advice for middle-aged or elderly foreigners who want to speak fluent English?

My advice would be not to fret about having an “accent”—the phonological traces of your first language will surely persist if you haven’t learned your second language by puberty. But no worries—English is a language practically free of morphology, and that makes parts of it easier to learn. We used to have a huge array of case, number, and gender markers—Proto-Indo-European, the ancient mother language of English, Hindi, Farsi, Greek, Russian, Irish, etc., had a rich collection of word endings to mark these things, as Russian still does, for example. But English is down to eight now (thanks partly to the language contact with French mentioned above, and other reasons). So, at least there’s that bit of help!


Joseph Conrad, a non-native English speaker, wrote many classics of English literature, e.g. Heart of Darkness. How did he acquire his mastery of vocabulary and sentence structure?

I suppose that Joseph Conrad’s feat of writing Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, and other works in his third language, English (his first language being his native Polish and his second being French), seems more monumental to us in our largely monolingual society than it would in other places where bilingualism or multilingualism is a way of life. Still, it’s quite an impressive accomplishment, which must have required remarkable discipline.


The majority of contemporary American writers and poets are English teachers. Do you write poetry?

I love poetry desperately, but really feel a bit too humble to try my hand at it in a serious way. I love Shakespeare’s sonnets, but could not aspire to emulate them. I think my relationship with poetry is to appreciate the creations of others (poiēma means “creation” in Greek, after all), and to find ways to see and bring to my students what the language is doing in a poem, how the poet is producing a certain effect by the careful shaping of the words, structures, and sounds.


How do you evaluate English as a language for writing poetry?

A lovely question. When we look around the languages of the world, we see that each language has developed a poetic style, an aesthetic system, suitable to its own linguistic tastes and traditions. Old English words had the stress on the first syllable, and many poetic repercussions came from that fact: the rhythm of the line tends to be trochaic, that is, the first syllable is stressed. Alliteration—the matching of first consonants, as in Beowulf’s “Oft Schyld Schefing sceaþena þreatum” with all its sh’s—is especially suitable to languages with stress on the first syllable. The noun-heaviness of Old English also comes across in this poetry, in strong contrast to the rhyming, iambic pentametered-style that Chaucer and his peers imported from French, full of verbal forms like participles. So, English is quintessentially equipped to be an amazingly flexible language of poetry, of many kinds of poetry.


What’s new when it comes to English grammar? Are we going to get rid of irregular verbs?

We’ve been losing those irregular verbs steadily for years, but also gaining a few—do you say “She dove into the water or she dived?” OE had both, but the former was lost, says the Oxford English Dictionary, before 1300. But “dove” has undergone a sort of comeback in the US. Will we lose all our irregular verbs? It’s interesting that the things which are most frequent are often shielded from change, however irregular they are, and some of the irregular verbs are remarkably frequent—like “to be.” The paradigm of this verb is patched together from three different ancient verbs: is, are, was / were. Irregularity is tolerated, more than we think.


You are about to teach a course that questions a well-established assumption about gender differences in language use, “Do Men and Women Really Talk Differently?” Well, do they?

Well, I’m about to lead a conversation on this topic at the “Great Conversations” dinner, at any rate! It’s a fascinating topic—and the research does indicate that men and women do tend to speak quite differently. Women tend to construct conversations together, supporting each other as they build up a consensus. Some regard women’s tendency to apologize and to cede the floor as a sign of weakness, but other researchers claim that these are techniques for building a bond, to show that we are all on the same level, the same wave length. A number of studies have shown that men tend to use their language more competitively, to demonstrate status. Women and men simply have different agendas.


Do you have an MFA program in your department?

Not presently, but it’s under discussion. Our Creative Writing Program has grown phenomenally over the past few years, with many signs of success: the Creative Writing Reading Series, the expansion of our student-run, award-winning journal, Sagebrush Review, the establishment of a Creative Writing Certificate for our graduate programs, and the support of so many wonderful friends in the community—all of these successes portend a great future for Creative Writing at UTSA.


Are you happy with your medical insurance coverage; and should we institute the British public option method to solve the healthcare crisis in this country?

I have a story to tell about this. My daughter was playing professional volleyball in Denmark, and she tore her ACL. She received outstanding medical care there, including surgery on her knee and physical therapy and was not charged anything, even though she was a foreigner and hadn’t purchased insurance there. I was completely impressed. While I don’t know if we can afford to be so generous-minded in this large, capitalistic society of ours, I will never forget how grateful I felt that this system of socialized medicine was there to catch her and protect her. I hope we can do a better job in the US than we have been doing so far.


As a professor and linguist, how would you categorize the senator’s outburst “You Lie”?

Self-defamatory. Embarrassing. Ridiculous. President Obama deserves all the respect our nation can muster for taking on the challenges that he has shouldered, and this outburst was utterly insulting. I’m glad that the President seems capable of taking it all in stride—no inflammatory outbursts from him, but only the thoughtful considerations of a wise, articulate leader.


Mo H. Saidi: Thank you very much for your time.


From the December 2009 issue


Questions for Dr. Carmen Tafolla

Interviewed by Mo H Saidi

San Antonio-born Dr. Carmen Tafolla is internationally acclaimed as a writer, poet, performer, and educational consultant, and as a renowned folklorist of the Chicano-Mexican community. Described by Alex Haley as a “world class writer,” she has published poetry, screenplays, children’s books, short stories, and articles. Her work has appeared in over 200 anthologies; she has performed her one-woman show, “My Heart Speaks a Different Language” all over the world. In 1999 she received the Art of Peace Award for writing which furthered peace, justice, and human understanding. Her book The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans won the 2009 Tomás Rivera Award. Other recently published children’s books are, What Can You Do with a Rebozo? and What Can You Do with a Paleta?, which this year has won the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Best Children’s Picture Book Writing, the Américas Award, the 2010 Tomás Rivera Award, and two International Latino Book Awards. Having co-authored a children’s book about the activist who stood up for the pecan shellers of San Antonio in the 1930s, That’s Not Fair!: Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice / ¡No es Justo!: La Lucha de Emma Tenayuca por la Justicia (2008), she is now at work on the adult biography. Tafolla earned her Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin, and currently teaches at the University of Texas-San Antonio in the Department of Bicultural, Bilingual Studies.


Mo Saidi: As a highly acclaimed writer, you have published works for both children and adults in numerous anthologies, magazines, journals, and textbooks. Why do you write books for children?

Carmen Tafolla: Gabriel García Márquez said that every writer is a revolutionary, and I believe that what calls us to be writers—to suffer and sweat over every word and every comma till the expression is perfect, to forego financial security and more stable career opportunities in order to embrace a low-paying job that works us 24-7 all the way to the grave—is that desire to change the world. Some think politics will change the world, some think foundations, donations and grants will do this, some think getting everyone to join the same church will do this. Writers think reaching people’s minds and hearts will be what changes the world. And the earlier we CAN reach their minds and hearts, the more impact we can have—THAT’s why I write for children, the most important VIP’s out there. I write for adults too, but children are an important audience I refuse to neglect.


You are considered a symbol of the bicultural West-Side of San Antonio; would it be appropriate to call you a Chicano writer?

Our modern world has the long-term memory of a flea. We live in the present, focus on the future, run away from the past. Yet it is the past that has made us who we are. Yes, I listen to the voices of my ancestors, they whisper in my ears, guide me, scold me, pick me up, shape me… I listen to other people’s ancestors too. I am unabashedly a Chicana writer. I have a sense of place, of history, of identity, of gratitude to that culture and those cultures that made me. And by claiming openly my Chicana identity, I also open the door to claiming my links to the Arab world and the Jewish world, the European and the Amerindian, the Celt and Goth and Asian and East Indian, as well as to all those cultural identities that I do not find in my direct lineage. Too often today, folks fall to the fad of not wanting to discuss race or sex or culture; some would say those concepts are passé. The deeper truth is that those topics are still painful, AND unresolved. The topics embarrass us as a nation, so many simply avoid mentioning those issues. But I choose to look at where the injuries and the infections lie, to clean out the pus, and face these issues head on, not only with honesty but also with celebration of what they say about our human heritage, with deep respect for the sanctity of our human diversities. Being a Chicana writer doesn’t limit me; it makes me even more universal, more a member of the human race.


<.b>Being fluent in both Spanish and English, and with a doctorate in bilingual education, in what language do you write?

I write, usually, in one of three languages: English, Spanish, or Tex-Mex. Of the three, Tex-Mex is my favorite. English is what most of my readers speak so many of the works that get published are in English. When I write Spanish, I usually write in its Tejano dialect, and a lot of publishers and editors don’t understand or appreciate our regional Tejano Spanish very much. And children’s literature has been the most open to publishing bilingually, in both Spanish AND English. And while I once was fluent in French, and even wrote a few poems in French, my love of mestizaje (or métissage, as the French call it) drew me to create a Franco-Tex-Mex poem once called “La Minuit Chingade” spoofing language elitism.


English is a melting pot that absorbs words from everywhere, including Mexico and Latin America. Are we stealing other people’s vocabulary, or is it fair trade to import and coin new words?

Of course we import language daily and have done so for the entire history of human communication. Language is not prescriptive, it is descriptive, that is, it simply seeks to document how we communicate, not to dictate how we should communicate. Language is so dynamic and fluid that it is always growing and adapting to meet people’s communication needs. We add new concepts from situations and cultures we encounter, and then find we need the words to express those concepts. English is full of those words—we’ve learned from Spanish concepts how to live life with gusto, criticize machismo, and conduct guerilla warfare; we’ve learned from French concepts the consequence of having an elite, a coup d’état, or a military reconnaissance, and we’ve imported a million other everyday words from countless other languages. The Spanish did the same before us, incorporating Arab words and Jewish concepts, Indian vocabulary and English “loan words.” The day we truly quit borrowing words from other languages, we will have ceased to grow and breathe as a language, and our culture will become static and funereal.


You write prose and poetry but you are also doing a one-woman show; what is the attraction of acting? Does it not take you away from writing?

Actually, the acting and the writing feed each other. I’ve always been an auditory writer, that is, I can’t be happy with a literary piece on the page unless I’m happy with the way it “falls on the ear.” I could blame that on the poet in me, but even my prose has to have that human song to its voice, or else it falls flat to reality, sounding artificial. Acting gives me a chance to take characters from the page and put them into an active, dramatic mode. I actually “edit” some of my characters after performing them, and that electric way the theater lets you interact with an audience feeds my writing and gives me new ideas, new energy.


What do you make of the Tea Party Movement? Could it be a racist reaction to the election of our first African-American president? Have you yourself ever experienced racial prejudice in academia?

Yes, this President has had to carry the burden of so many people’s prejudices. Ask any priest how many confessions they hear of people admitting, “I could never vote for a Black man for President.” I can’t even imagine any other President having had such total denial of his American birth—do they really think it’s impossible for a child to be born here of an African man and an American woman? Or for a smart, conscientious black man to really be an American citizen? But for all the racist backlash we are getting right now, prompting xenophobia and anti-Latino legislation, the scapegoating of immigrants didn’t start with Obama’s election. Racial prejudice continues to happen in many institutions, including academia. Twenty-five years ago, when I received my first tenure-track position (and was one of two entering non-White faculty), we experienced such a level of suspicion, stereotyping, and office sabotage that the department chair even ordered the office Information Resource files locked against us, because they feared we might steal them! All along the way, I was accused of “only getting the job because I was Mexican” and all along the way, I had to publish twice as much and accomplish twice as much just to get the job!


Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few, ended their lives tragically. Why are artists and poets so vulnerable to emotional extremes?

When people ask me what it’s like to write, I tell them: imagine the process of childbirth. Then, when you think about trying to write in between all the interruptions of paying bills and making a living, imagine a lo-o-o-o-o-ong labor that gets put on hold several times a day for a week or a month, only to be asked to start up again, over and over, after the interruption. Babies would NEVER get born if we did childbirth the way most artists are asked to write! Writing also requires honesty, pain, confrontation of your inner demons, and sometimes, this can push a writer over the edge. It’s as if we have all our sensitivity antennae turned on, in order to write, and some writers never turn it off. Looking at the big picture, though, Plath and Hemingway are a minority. Many writers are some of the most emotionally stable people I know. They have to be—to survive the multiple childbirths of their creative works. Look at Elena Poniatowska, Julia Alvarez, Carlos Fuentes, James Michener, Ernesto Cardenal, Demetria Martínez, Jaqueline Woodson, Denise Chavez, and so many others.


America was inhabited by the First Peoples long before Europeans, the Second Peoples, who arrived uninvited. Why do you think there is such a hostile reaction to the wave of recent immigrants, the Third Peoples, coming to America even if they have to climb the walls looking for work?

I think America is running away from its conscience and from its Christianity. Most of these “Third Peoples” are not Third peoples at all, but First Peoples, descendents of the original residents of this continent, and most of the anti-immigrant leadership does not want to be reminded of that. No one wants to admit that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had no permission from the nations of this continent to come here, and therefore, were illegal immigrants. No one wants to remember, either, that the basic tenets of Christianity state clearly that our Christian responsibilities are to welcome the stranger. These days, the Statue of Liberty is a hypocrite.


Do you have any children?

I have a 26-year-old, an 18-year-old who just started college, and a 5-year-old, who starts kindergarten this month. AND My 92-year-old mother lives with my husband and I as well, so between the family members, the friends-to-die-for, and a few additional “spiritual children,” our house seems always full and festive.


What do you make of our mayor who is garnishing national attention? Is he going to become a major national figure, perhaps President?

It’s certainly possible, and would definitely represent some positive changes for the way Latinos are viewed. Like so many San Antonians, I’m very proud of both Castro twins, and of their Mom, activist Rosie Castro, whose ongoing tenets were always conciencia y comunidad. If you could pour all the leadership skills and commitment in that family into a generator, we’d have a new power source!


Other than children’s books and the adult biography of Emma Tenayuca, what else can we expect in the near future?

The long-awaited art-and-poetry collection, Rebozos, will finally be out in 2011! Sixteen full-color oil paintings by Catalina Gárate are accompanied by my poems in both English and Spanish, and make a universal statement about women’s emotions and experiences, celebrations and mourning. And this fall, the sell-out hit of last Christmas season, Tamales, Comadres, & The Meaning of Civilization, co-authored with Ellen Clark, will return in an expanded second edition, to be released November 13th at a Book-signing event at The Twig, accompanied by the conjunto sound of Juan Tejeda.


Thank you very much for your time.


From the September 2010 issue


Questions for Richard Becker

Interviewed by Mo H. Saidi

Dr. Richard A. Becker was born in Abilene, Texas. He graduated from Abilene High School and holds B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Texas at Austin in English Literature. He is a 1971 graduate of the University of Texas Medical School at San Antonio, Texas. He trained in internal medicine at Boston City Hospital, and in endocrinology at Yale Medical School. He is a member of AOA and was the 2000 Distinguished Medical Alumnus of the University of Texas Medical School at San Antonio. He served as a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy Medical Branch at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland from 1976 to 1978. Dr. Becker and his wife established Becker Vineyards in Fredericksburg, Texas in 1992. He was the president of the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association in 1997 and 1998. He is also on the board of the Texas Hill Country Food and Wine Festival in Austin, Texas, and of Culinaria: Wine & Culinary Arts Festival in San Antonio, Texas.


Mo H Saidi: You are a successful endocrinologist and probably treat a lot of patients with diabetes. What inspired you to become a vintner?

Richard Becker: There is a balance of art and science in both medicine and wine making. So, there is an appeal on that basis, but I have a long history of interest in horticulture and was learning about food and wine pairing when we bought the property in Gillespie County. Also, there have been many physicians who were vintners. I had the opportunity to stand in Pasteur’s laboratory and to visit his vineyard. Remember that the germ theory of disease was described by Pasteur after observing infecting microorganisms in “sick wine” and extrapolating those observations to sick patients.


Before you entered medical school, you graduated from the University of Texas with a master’s degree in English literature. What happened to your literary inclinations?

On sabbatical but achingly present. I have two mistresses, medicine and viticulture. I don’t think I could pursue writing other than full time.


When you and I participated in the UTHSCSA Writing Workshop moderated by Dr. Abraham Verghese, you presented some passages of a memoir focusing on the founding of Becker Vineyards. What’s going on with that project?

About a chapter and a half. I spend more time thinking about it than writing.


The Becker Vineyard in Fredericksburg, Texas is one of the most recognized Texas vineyards. How do you compete with other national or international winemakers? Any war stories from wine competitions?

All of our marketing has been what’s in the glass, not what is said about it. If the wine is good enough, then one doesn’t need marketing. We have a great advantage in Texas because Texans love things Texan if they are good.


In poetry, especially among Persian poets, e.g. Hafiz and Khayam, red wine is sacred. Do you agree with them?

Yes, there is a long line of connections between wine and blood and sacred blood, etc. For me the wine is sacred only if it is good.


Hafiz compares a well landscaped vineyard to paradise, provided he’s also awarded the company of a beautiful Shirazi woman and a bottle of vintage red wine. Is he exaggerating or is he under the influence?

He needs to sober up!


As a physician, do you believe wine has any medicinal benefits?

Yes, but they must be balanced against all the risks of excess alcohol and alcoholism. The final analysis is awash in society.


Another medical question; do you think America needs a universal healthcare coverage for all its citizens?

Yes as has almost every President, Democrat or Republican, for sixty years.


You are a successful entrepreneur in both medicine and the wine business—have you ever failed in any business venture?

Yes, and I think that is crucially important to an entrepreneur. I believe that if you haven’t failed, then you aren’t trying hard enough.


Have you ever considered retiring from your many activities to start a new career, i.e., writing?

Yes, but I am not yet ready for that. I am very fortunate to have the life I have.


We are in the midst of the longest and deepest recession since the Great Depression. How have you fared so far in this perilous economy?

The wine business is much healthier than medicine. I never thought that the vineyard would allow me to continue to practice medicine.


What do you think about the Tea Party Movement; is it racially motivated or an honest movement against government expansion?

Any organization that supports Governor Palin is beyond comment.


Wine, music, and poetry are closely related. Do you stage poetry or music performances at your vineyard?

Yes, lots of music, e.g., Bluegrass in The Bluebonnets April 9 and 10. We read Dickens and Truman Capote at Christmas.


If you are amenable to the idea, Voices de la Luna could offer you a program of “Wine, Music, and Poetry” at your vineyard. After all, poets will travel long distances in order to recite their poetry and enjoy a glass of good wine.



Writers are creative, just like gardeners; do you grow and tend your vineyard’s gardens?

Yes, lavender, rosemary, and artichokes, also tomatoes and potatoes.


Thank you very much for your time.


From the July 2011 issue


Questions for Naomi Shihab Nye

Dialogue with Robert Bonazzi

Naomi Shihab Nye’s latest book of poems, Transfer (BOA Editions, 2011), is the focus of this brief dialogue. She was born in St. Louis, lived in Jerusalem, and shares a San Antonio home with husband Michael Nye, the documentary photographer, and son Madison, a grad student at Johns Hopkins. She graduated from Lee High School and Trinity University, has authored (or edited) 32 books in various genres for all ages, and works as a wandering poet in countless schools and communities in many countries. 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems from the Middle East was a finalist for the National Book Award, and two of her books were recognized by the Jane Addams Peace Association’s Children’s Book Awards. In the fall of 2011 Nye was Visiting Professor at the Michener Center for Writers, UT/Austin. Her father Aziz Shihab’s memoir of Palestine, Does the Land Remember Me? (2007) was reissued in paperback by Syracuse University Press in 2011.


Robert Bonazzi: In Transfer you focus primarily on the loving relationship with your late father, Aziz Shihab, who has been the subject of poems in previous collections. The loss of a parent tends to be a primal event, and these poems track a deep grieving, which despite the claims of clinicians as to the “stages of grief” follow no prescribed pattern. What was your strategy for sequencing? Were the poems placed chronologically-as-written or were finished texts arranged later? Was your arrangement accomplished by a conscious method or by an intuitive aesthetic?

Naomi Shihab Nye: Definitely intuitive arrangement, on the floor, page by page, later. It would have been impossible to struc- ture a sequencing beforehand, and chronological arrangement would be peculiar at best. The poems wanted to move, in the second part of the book, back into the world, which for me was entirely changed by my father’s new absence and deeper presence. We always look for a harmony among individual pieces—no?—a fluent current of thinking giving them new relationships, one to another.


The second section of Transfer (“Just Call Me Aziz”) contains eleven poems that take their titles from lines in your father’s notebooks. Unlike your other elegies about him, wherein the first-person narrator usually represents your voice, these seem to actually inhabit his voice, giving the convincing sense that Aziz had written them. We know you wrote the poems, but to what degree do they derive from recollections of his stories and the way he told them?

His voice inhabits my memory and ear so strongly that simply using his own floating lines as titles invited his voice to take over. This wasn’t planned beforehand, it just happened while writing. Aziz was skeptical of adjectives, as journalists often are, so the poems in his voice have fewer of those than my own might have. He loved short sentences and blunt diction. Writing this section made me laugh. I found things out. It was comforting to feel his own voice emerging so easily——I wouldn’t mind writing more poems of this kind. Guess it’s another way to keep that conversation going—as Alastair Reid mentioned [in an epigraph to Nye’s “Introduction”]. My father left a lot of scrappy notebooks, after all. Many more titles awaiting….


All cultures have story-telling traditions—from oral history to literature—and since your narrative poems and Aziz’s autobiographical texts about his exile from Palestine were often created from actual events—can we assume that you place great value upon story-telling, especially stories generated through the Palestinian culture?

Without a doubt, I do. No one can deny your story. Or the way you remember what you describe as your story. They may argue with your opinion, but not your story.


Since only recently are we hearing the long-silenced Palestinian narrative spoken in its own voice (by Abbas at the UN, through peaceful demonstrations throughout the Arab world, and in the overdue international awareness of the criminal injustices of Israeli occupation), do you sense new possibilities for human rights, self-determination, and peace in these developments?

Definitely I do. And it is long, long overdue. And everyone with a moderate, reasonable sensibility in any country hopes for it—Palestinians and Israeli Jews and everyone who cares about balance in the region and mutual respect. As a local friend said to me years ago about what happened to the Palestinians (the whole “spin” to disbelieve or minimize or justify all the horrific crimes committed against them), “How did anyone ever think this would work out?”


Your third section includes diverse poems—several that focus on anecdotes about Aziz, others that have no literal connection but become suddenly touched by strophes of grief— all in a sense “informed” by Jack Ridl’s epigraph that reads: “Grief is an ambush. You’re walking along feeling fine, look down, see a leaf, and begin to weep.” Does this quote capture the resonance of these poems on Palestinian children, a lost dog in your neighborhood, the lovely meditation on language (in “Maximum Security”), the homage to poet William Stafford and those “invisible” worlds represented by fish in a Dubai aquarium? Since grief appears randomly, unexpectedly and painfully in places with no direct bearing on your father, was the sense of loss symbolically projected upon these other experiences or did the connections emerge unbidden?

Unbidden, definitely. It’s the gift of poetry that helps us see—allows threads to be stitched among disparate details, experiences, moments. I was staying at the San Jose Hotel in Austin—a favorite hotel, but was feeling deeply lonely for my dad. Kind friends showed up with a thermos of white tea. That same night, Jack’s quote floated in, and carried me for months. His own knowing helped life feel bearable again. Grief carries us into that new country of citizenship where no one is denied a passport. Checkpoints? Ha. Like, every day. We find ways to go on. Sentences can help a lot. Since childhood, I never thought we give enough credit to simple sentences.


From the January 2012 issue


Laurie Ann Guerrero, A San Antonio Original

Gerard S. Robledo

Born and raised on San Antonio’s Southside, Laurie Ann Guerrero is the new star in the city’s literary community. Guerrero’s first full-length book of poems, A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying, is raising eyebrows and pricking ears in literary circles everywhere (see review on p. 10). Regarding her poetry, Martín Espada said, “Guerrero writes in a language of the body, visceral, almost unbearably vivid, … attention must be paid to such a poet now and for years to come.” Guerrero’s book release was held at the Museo Alameda on Friday, March 1, and was the first in a series of planned art events in San Antonio, an event which I was thrilled to attend.

The event was filled to capacity with family, friends, her students, colleagues, and some of her literary peers. A definite sense of community, family, and pride swaddled the audience, like the devoted hands of the mothers Guerrero’s work so often praises. The evening’s speakers included TAMUSA President Dr. Maria Hernandez Ferrier, Dr. Carmen Tafolla—the “Madrina of poetry”—and Dr. Larissa Mercado-Lopez, lecturer in Women’s Studies at UTSA. These women gave their adulation of Guerrero and spoke of the power and need for her work, while her own mother watched from the audience with undying pride. The event resonated with familiarity and affection, as if my family were telling stories of my mother. I felt pride and tears swell in my own throat as she began to speak. What makes Guerrero’s work relatable is not only that she and I grew up in the same neighborhood, or that we went to the same high school, but that her work is San Antonio: its mothers, sisters, the poor, the neighborhood corner stores, the food, La Raza, history. It is the voice of those who have none. From this perspective she illustrates history, pain, pride, a constant struggle for equality, and the resounding hope that lies throughout. It was a treasured evening for Guerrero, poetry, and the people of South San Antonio, a celebration for us all. The following is an interview I conducted with her after the event.


Gerard S. Robledo: So how were/are you feeling about your very own book, and its receiving the 2012 Andres Montoya Poetry prize?

Laurie Ann Guerrero: It’s a little scary: I feel like I have stepped out of the shadows. I can be seen. One of the many lessons I learned in college was that when it is my time to speak, I’d better have something to say. So, my time is now, and that’s very empowering. So I feel very strong and very ready.

And because I know some of the work of the poets who were finalists for the prize, and I know how very, very good their work is, I feel humbled. Honored. I was a finalist for this prize in 2010, and I know firsthand that a prize for any Latino/a poet is a prize for us all. Many of the finalists called me to tell me just that. I smile a lot when I think of it. I’ve been smiling a lot lately.


The title is A Tongue in Mouth of the Dying. Where does a beautiful title like that comes from?

I wrote something about the importance of voice (tongue) for those whose experiences hadn’t been documented, and how my voice was one of many. The tongue began to represent many things after I gave the book its new name: language, voice, sex. The opening poem, “Preparing the Tongue,” is about preparing a lengua for breakfast tacos, but it’s also about the fear of speaking up, of unbinding one’s tongue for the sake of speech, about pushing through uncharted territories for the fulfillment that comes after the work is done.


Your poem, “One Man’s Name: Colonization of the Poetic,” is broken up into sections and sown throughout your book. What made you decide to do that, as opposed to a traditional consecutive sequence?

That is a very personal poem about a very sexist and racist comment made by a grad school professor about the paternity of my children. The comment came during my first week in grad school at a brand new program. It evoked a lot of anger, a lot of fear. It made me question my decision to attend grad school, my decision to enter a field dominated by white men. But it also made me think back through my history as a Chicana woman and confirmed the need for my voice. The emotion of this event came in waves—sometimes I felt very empowered, sometimes I felt very small. I wanted the poems to come to the reader in that way.


You graduated from two great universities on the east coast. Why come back to teach in San Antonio, back to the Southside?

I belong here. I figured I could write or teach anywhere, but doing that work here is not only very centering, but I know that what I do in my classroom can affect my students in a much more positive way because they recognize themselves in my story we eat at the same places, shop at the same grocery stores, went to the same high school, grew up in the same culture, same city. My grandma is their grandma and my kids are their kids. It’s very important for me to write from the Southside. It is a place of love and familiarity that makes me feel safe. It’s very centering, and that helps me write truthfully. But also, it’s a place of uncertainty—economic, educational, among other kinds. There’s a sense of loss here, too, that I can’t name yet (maybe it’s just because I’m getting older). I am pulled here. My hope is that my passion for helping folks raise their voices helps build a stronger community—that we can add a new, empowered layer to our history.


Do you feel there is a need for poetry within the San Antonio community? If so, how does your work fit into that?

There is so much poetry in the community! Does it get enough support? No. Is it as celebrated as it should be? No. I think the need is for opened eyes and ears. There are a lot of us in the community working on that in schools, in community centers. And, it’s not an easy job, but there’s a lot of passionate people here.


I have friends who are Latino artists, and they are immediately asked if they do “Chicano” art. Some say they feel pigeonholed into an idea of what it is to be Latino and an artist. Do you feel it is the same for Latino writers? Is it our duty to write “Chicano” poetry, or yours to write from a Chicana perspective?

I don’t “feel a need.” I have no choice but to write from my perspective. I think it’s kind of silly to ask any artists if they “do” any kind of racially informed art. I think we need new names for styles, and not have them identifiable by the ethnicity or race of the artist. What is the goal? To write from the perspective of an Indian woman? A German man? I can’t do that. I think that racial labeling comes from those who do not reside within the group they are labeling. To adopt it for ourselves can be limiting, but I do think that if I write a poem about frijolitos, it is a Chicana poem. In the same way, if I write a poem about beets, it’s a Chicana poem, because I wrote it.


Any words of advice for writers striving to succeed, break out, get recognized? Words of wisdom?

Don’t let anyone tell you who you are or what you’re capable of doing. Find out for yourself!


From the April 2013 issue


Questions for Juan Felipe Herrera

Interviewed by Mo H Saidi

The son of migrant farm workers, Herrera attended UCLA and Stanford University, and he earned his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His numerous poetry collections include 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross the Border: Undocuments 1971-2007 (2007), Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems (2008), and Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream (1999). In addition to publishing more than a dozen collections of poetry, Herrera has written short stories, young adult novels, and children’s literature. In 2015 he was named U.S. Poet Laureate.


Mo H Saidi: What elements of your past and personal history exerted the deepest influence on your poetry and prose?

Juan Felipe Herrera: Everything. My parents who crossed the thin border, laborers living at the edge of society, yet, surviving—their stories from an America no longer in motion, a Mexico no longer alive. Their continuity in a discontinuous world, most of all their strength as pioneers. This was the fuel, the source, and the inspiration.


You have been named one of the first poets to successfully create “a new hybrid art, part oral, part written, part English, part something else: an art grounded in ethnic identity, fueled by collective pride, yet irreducibly individual too.” How would you explain this characterization?

I have been part of various literary cultures—Mexican farm- workers, First Peoples in Mexico (Huichol and Mayan), Latinx Movimiento Civil Rights Movement, Mexican and Latin American poetry exchanges, People’s Poetry Movements on the West Coast, and writers’ workshops and university cohorts. And I love to experiment. I am a follower of Marie Ponsot’s notion that “if you are not experimenting, you are not writing poetry.” For me, writing is more painting, sculpture, photography, music, and movement—than text.


Looking at the many and significant contributions of Latino writers, e.g., Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Lygia Clark, José Cura, Octavio Paz, and Pablo Neruda to international literature, why is the U.S. public so blatantly ignoring this important fact?

Borders are everywhere. The English language and its literary canons are still dominant, as are their social and cultural institutions. However, things are changing as we speak. Power is always at play. It is never static.


In the poem “Borderbus,” you describe a shockingly vivid scene: “It took me 47 days to get here it wasn’t easy hermana / 45 days from Honduras with the coyotes the ones that—well / you know what they did to las chicas.” It seems like you rode on that same bus. How did you come up with these images, and who are las chicas?

I have ridden night trains and night buses filled with those who work the lands and harvest everything we take for granted. Also, I read stories in the news. And listen to people that I meet whether on the street or at poetry book signing tables. My journeys to Mexico have been treks into the margins, mountains, and forests. All this is everywhere—all you need to do is open your eyes, ears, and heart. And write. And speak up for others. It is called humanity.

As a naturalized citizen for 48 years, I was moved to tears by this passage from your poem “Exiles”: “They are not there in the homeland, in Argentina, not there / in Santiago, Chile; never there in Montevideo, Uruguay, / and they are not here // in America // They are in exile: a slow scream across a yellow bridge.” Do you think non-Anglo immigrants have a harder time shedding their exile identity?

Non-Anglo immigrants and migrants see things differently because of their cultural and political experience. Color, language, “our” legal machine and national narratives regarding the “border,” Islam, the Middle East, Asia, and “terrorists” influence largely how we see ourselves, our “national identity,” and “others.” It is excruciating, severe, and traumatic to be an immigrant or migrant of color, with an entirely different life-way at this time. You have a beautiful heart.


Your performance on the stage at the McNay Museum in San Antonio was unlike that of any other U.S. Poet Laureate I have seen. It was simple yet powerful, full of delight, rich in imagery. Your poetry is as accessible as that of William Carlos Williams, yet as socially dominant as Langston Hughes’. The majority of Americans are indifferent to poetry. Do you think your approach can help make poetry popular in the United States?

We need many approaches. One approach is to see poetry as deep communication and “communitas,” as anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff said in the early 70s as she looked at large social gatherings and their instant solidarity. It is the word of the people, not corporate sales talk. If you notice these days, probably 90% of our experience is immersed in corporate machination.


In the past, poets wore the mantles of prophet, philosopher, healer. Khayyam wrote about humanity’s struggle to decipher the riddle of creation, Hafiz questioned the legitimacy of clerics, Rumi spoke of longing for true love. Besides addressing life’s major passages such as birth, death, love, weddings, and funerals, what is the place of poetry in our fast-paced, technology-driven society? How can poetry provide answers to our complicated world and its grave social issues?

Verse is the pathway of deep vision in the present. This is the template where Einstein resolved his equation E=mc2, it is where Steve Jobs experienced his epiphanies for the “new device.” It is where Frida Kahlo pivoted to speak of and sketch the non- conformist gendered body. All the arts provide this gift. It is not a lollipop. It is as Li-Young Lee has said: it is “staring into the mouth of Creation.” We will never progress without poetry, that is, the deep reservoirs of imagination, kindness, and individual mind connected to Big Mind.


Poetry created outside the United States seems more social/ political and less personal. You are an activist on behalf of migrant and indigenous people and vulnerable children and youth. Should American poets address more directly our political crises, social injustices, and racial conflicts and still strive for academic recognition?

They are doing so as we speak. We do more than one thing. We flow in more than one current threaded to all currents. Text is voice. Totality is the goal. In the past, people built walls to stop the movement of other people, e.g., the Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall, always with adverse results. Now we have politicians with an irrational obsession to erect walls and divide our society. Why don’t we, in America, learn from history? It is not present in our day-to-day lives. We have commercials, we have gun movies, we have wars in all sizes. And somewhere in between there are people working hard to change this kind of society. We must work harder—the struggle is not static. Everyone must create the positive, the peace, the community, the open borders—the nourishment and care for all—so that we can attain a never-imagined way of life filled with true humanity carrying the New Idea.


Thank you very much. In conclusion, could you name a few poets and fiction writers whom you admire and whose work you read often?

I love them all, from the kind of rhymes my mother learned at the beginning of the 20th century, to the spoken word raps in St. Louis, Missouri, where youth perform Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”


From the August 2017 issue






Remembering Jim Brandenburg and Carol Reposa


Ode to Jim Brandenburg
January 31, 1943 - January 13, 2023

Lou Taylor

“Your long work of turning life into celebration is done.”—Mary Oliver


You have succeeded. We will celebrate with you as we love each other until our last breath. Your kindness, your poetry, your zest for life, your outrageous wit and curiosity, your never ending passion for learning, your loving spirit will live in us. Life is richer than we could have imagined because we knew you.  

The Ride Home
(For Carol Coffee Reposa)

Tom Murphy

Exiting Bill S. Cole UC with a box of unsold books in hand, I glance about the friends I’m leaving here in Ada, Oklahoma, at East Central U, though Carol isn’t among those chatting, doddering in the afterglow of another perfect Scissortail Creative Writing Festival. As I walk out into the fresh air and take my books to the car Carol isn’t around, smoking one of her Doral Lights 100s from the gold box, slipping me a cig with her impish grin as if our secret shared was light and giddy as helium inhaled. The red bud not as brilliant as last year’s bloom — difference of days of winter to spring — alone I pack up the Forester get my bearings: top off gas, set GPS map up on the phone turn up Heroin by Lana Del Rey for the ride home. Last year, Carol disagreed how to leave Ada. I bypassed the Chickasaw Turnpike, turned around, then we had our only argument. My dear Carol was a luddite. That’s about as nicely put as I can muster. I cannot count the troubles with her email, she didn’t use her cell phone, couldn’t collate her manuscript computer files — I Did what I could and sent off Sailing West to Katie Hoerth at Lamar University Literary Press. I owed Carol. When she took Susan, Elanor, our five cats and I in, fleeing Hurricane Harvey. Her kindness overwhelming, though quietly Ellie complained about no Wi-Fi — Carol was hardwired. Carol dedicated Sailing West to her students and me, her “special friend and Guru.” In private, she called me, “My prince.” Her straight black hair, her overweight build, Carol reminded me of my mom. I not only drove Carol to Scissortail, but to Granbury for the Langdon Review Weekend, dropping Carol off at Charles and Dominique Inge’s Brazos House as Texas Poet Laureate, where her hosts toasted with Prosecco. The ride home, Carol, isn’t always pretty or tidy as driving for hours to our resting places. The ride home, Carol, is full of anger, loneliness and regret. I shall never reveal your secrets or your state of being this past year — Carol, you were under siege until the end. I last saw you five days before passing, kissed your forehead, as Thelma witnessed, after I read you your poem, “Signing the Will.” Good night, sweet Carol, as our paths diverge, we must travel alone on the ride home. Good night, Carol. May your journey in the sky boat radiate your light. So, in time, I may follow your vast illuminations.  

Selected Poems from the Past Fifteen Years


The call of the muse

Tom Keene

Something happens and the core of it shines of inner light to blast the inner eye. We stand touched, grabbed, struck dumb, yet called, not quite so strong as Allah giving birth to the Qu’ran’s poetry, commanding Muhammad: Recite! But maybe a little like it. The caller has found us and we will be our becoming. Now we are blessed/cursed with hunger and thirst for words to speak the unspeakable. From the September 2008 issue


too much ado about nothing

Catherine-Grace Patrick

this time it lasted little more than a year that is…. until it fizzled when it drizzled down to nothing so it seemed though once we dreamed that nothing was impossible yet that too seems so ‘once upon a time’ before your heart turned on that dime and poof! there was but nothing From the March 2009 issue



James Brandenburg

Will you remember me by my verse? My words walk their solitary way across pages of black ink and white paper They echo on my heels at night Will you, too, walk that solitary path? Will you hear the echoes of my past in the wind? Will you remember me when I die? From the June 2009 issue


For My Desk

Naomi Shihab Nye

We judge books by their covers every day. You do, I do. Human beings— we’re stuck with ourselves. Always working on that new project. Never keeping up or catching up with what we miss. Feeling remiss. Each morning birds speak first. Sparrows gossip joyously. Gray dove continues to land on a feeder too small for her. A purple martin mother and purple martin father solve it all. From the September 2009 issue


Meet Me on the Pier

Joan Seifert

I savor salty sea winds! I feel the splash of waves that pull my line then gently end here from some far shore and stroke this trusty pier that holds such sea tales! A hungry pelican caws, flippant, hoping for the small fish I caught to be cast skyward for his easy lunch. The bird and I both laugh—Maybe so! Up I toss it; then on kindly winds my mind soars on toward open skies asking no permission— (Well, no one’s but yours.) And so, John, what of us? Will we revel here together in the roving breeze, our tender riddles capering in the waves? The pelican has flown, now sated with his tiny gift. So, will you meet me on the pier? Together, we may catch a keeper! From the December 2009 issue


The Voice

Margot Van Sluytman

Voiceless scent, oh stretching mountain, How you have spoken. My heartbeat in Twinned intimacy with your might, Answers. Answers. Answers. Greatness in all Her glory showers Tremendous poignancy clear upon Our heated wanting, and we are Joined like blood-siblings, imbibing Only one song. In straining to mount Your beckoning summit, Forgiveness breathes your name. Reconciliation eats your fire. You have heard us. We are glad. We are glad. We are glad. From the March 2010 issue


Last Speaker

Jim LaVilla-Havelin

On Monday in Anchorage the last fluent speaker of the Eyak language died. Someone looking to listen to the song of the words in Eyak will have to play tapes and all the smiles and sighs the tears and twinkles, endless shapes of a face in conversation watching the words jump into the raw air before they’re swallowed by a hungry listener are gone. The fish that are the words are hooked and gutted and served up flat, just as the birds and hands of Eyak are stilled. Dictionaries flop open to a page of words no one will ever pronounce again. From the June 2010 issue


The Poet and the Artist Compete

Martha K. Grant

My two muses are jealous stepsisters, escapees from an obscure fairy tale, vying for the starring role in my creative life. When one is in residence, having bolted the lock behind her on entering, she commands my rapt attention to her flirtation or outright seduction. But the other pouts on the studio porch, pacing and chain smoking, rattling the door handle, making faces in the windows. Some days I am unable to create at all, for they stand at a collaborative impasse, shoulder to shoulder in the door frame, blocking the light, their sturdy arms folded across stubborn chests, their paint-spattered artist smocks and ink-stained poet shirts hanging limp and lifeless on a single peg in the back of the closet. From the September 2010 issue


The Last Time I Taught Robert Frost

Wendy Barker

I shuddered when Olivia, who is writing her dissertation on dialectics of the self in Gloria Anzaldua, announced she found him lovely. “Lovely?” I cried, professional composure shot, my image of Frost collapsing suddenly as the Great Stone Face on Cannon Mountain, the craggy Old Man fallen in shards to the ground. True, this was not on par with the vandalizing of his house in Vermont, Homer Noble Farm’s wicker chairs, wooden tables, dressers smashed and thrown into the fire to keep the place warm while thirty kids swilled a hundred and fifty cans of Bud with a dozen bottles of Jack Daniel’s, and threw up on the floor. After all, Olivia wasn’t saying she didn’t like the poems, but lovely? A word my mother detested as phoney, like someone holding a pinky straight out while drinking tea, the sort of word my grandmother used when vaguely praising a Bartok piece, or a play she didn’t understand. Like people saying, “How interesting,” when what they really mean is, “Spare me the details,” or, “Could we change the subject.” So when I asked Olivia what she meant by “lovely” and she talked about the lush, long vowel sounds, I wondered why I’d felt stabbed, until I remembered my father’s lying in the ICU, the fat respirator tube jammed down his throat, the whoosh of forced breath fogging the glassed-in-room, and my stroking his forehead while my father, whom I’d never seen cry, began to leak tears down his chiseled face. Finally, not knowing what more to do, I stood by the window staring out at the New Hampshire pines and began reciting one of his favorite poems: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.” He started to jerk, whole body spasms under the sheets, more tears carving runnels down his cheeks, and I knew he wanted me to recite “Stopping By Woods,” his most-loved poem and maybe mine too, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t turn from that window looking out at the trees beyond the parking lot, the words to the one poem I’ve known by heart for decades buried somewhere below my throat. He died the next day. Maybe that was why I asked the class if we could recite it, if perhaps some of them had it memorized, and Denise and Lupe and Nathaniel actually said they had. So we chanted it, the other eight of us reading from the Norton’s crisp, white pages, but when we came to the ending, not a single student needed to look down as we sang the last stanza all together. I can’t explain it, but for once something dark and deep entered among us in the shivery air-conditioned room. As if we were all one self and yet still alone in the cold, and wanting to stay. When we talked again, we talked until I had to stand up, open the door, and tell them to leave, say it was past time for their dinners and all the lovely, nagging promises waiting for them to keep. From the January 2011 issue


The Yard Two Streets Up

Chuck Collins

Of the streets I can take for my morning walks I choose the one two up from ours where I can walk past one particular house whose yard makes me smile. It’s not perfect with rocks and bricks around exactly trimmed trees and tidy poodle bushes, but sculptured looser for inventive proportions of color and size with palate knife precision. It’s more like later Picasso than his earlier works, the paintings that are interpretative rather than photographic, of bowls of fruit that evoke the taste of fruit, not nude models whose every hair is in its proper place. I wonder what kind of person enjoys the freedom to have a yard different from the rest of us, perhaps a therapist or a synchronized swimmer who needs an outlet, or a poet liberated from having to write in four lines. Sometime soon I will knock on their door to thank them for expanding my understanding of “yard,” then I’d like to strike up a conversation about motive and creativity, and then, if it seems right, I might bring in the topic of poetry. From the April 2011 issue


After the Plunge

Cyra S. Dumitru

Someday when I become a disciple of the hidden, when I leave my body and join the moonrise taking only what the unseen can carry, when the sound in my lungs is silence, let there be one shred of me, one dense bit of ash that remembers the bright bite of living between bones: how I trembled beside the Pedernales River surging muddy and muscular with rain, how a longing to plunge into such motion— swirling deep yet forward seized me and I understood what it meant to be alive. From the July 2011 issue


Gruene, Texas
at the River

Marian Haddad

I came here because I know this place—because I have been here before, and I know where the river ends—I sit by the part where it foams white above rocks—three stumps reach far down into this river—and there, across from me, one seems to be growing right out of cliff, right out of rock. It leans— graceful sway of trunk—it has somehow found its leaning comfortable, a sideways growing— if something stays bent long enough—it assumes its place gracefully—learns to live with that. From the October 2011 issue


Postmodern Ekphrasis #17

Roger Sedarat

So this disaffected artist goes to the docks of the Jersey shore with a fistful of dollars to watch the boats return at twilight from the shark-fishing competition, his eyes fixed on the scales for right the blend of blue/grey skin and bloody-toothed jaws. He bids on third place. They unhook the chains, letting it fall with a thud. Said artist single-handedly drags his prize along the pier to a U-Haul truck where he’s pre-lined the floor with bags of ice bought from a nearby Wawa. Spectators watch him wrestle the eight-foot monster over his back and onto the bumper, its rubbery tail starting to slip between his arms. Once in said artist rolls down the back door and padlocks it shut, driving like mad without sleep for days to a recollected childhood setting. Somewhere between Austin and San Antonio, he pulls along I-35 and hits the blinkers. Setting his camera on the tripod, he unlocks the latch, the curtain of metal revealing a greyer-blue body as blood-slushy ice spills onto the freshly tarred road. He pulls the shark out by its tail, dragging it into a field of knee-high bluebonnets, curling it into a U to face the camera that he clicks and re-clicks. As the sun sets in the hilly horizon, he slowly drives away from his principal subject, leaving it there for drivers to rubber-neck and ponder in all its random glory. From the January 2012 issue


Still Life, with Crows

Janet Scott McDaniel

Held by a frame of faded gold, weak winter sun shines through twisted oak branches, the hill upon which they stand falling away to mist. Above the trees, inky black against steel gray clouds that fill the sky a murder of crows fly, wings outspread, slowly circling. Encased in splintered wood, through a cracked windowpane pale yellow rays tiptoe silently across the dusty floor, past the scent of cobwebs and rumpled sheets, to lie with whispers left upon the pillow. It hangs askew, paint cracking and peeling on the aged canvas, as seasons pass without sound; yet, when the wind follows free in the whispers left behind, deep secret wisdom remains, in their echoes, still inky black upon a steel gray sky, crows still fly. From the April 2012 issue


Little Sister

for Naomi Shihab Nye

Robert Bonazzi

Finding that lost look in your eyes, I search for the visions you see. Cats age slowly while napping, intricate filigree leap among stones, gardens fade as rain-lilies bloom. Outsiders return to the margins, where secrets are safe. If this vision be true—light us up! On your slatted porch, I leave these intangible gifts. From the July 2012 issue


Death of a Toy Pomeranian

Milo Kearney

Pleading eyes One more last look Remember I love you It’s time Good-bye. From the October 2012 issue


Elegy 1

11 July 2012

Palmer Hall

And so we come to it, unwilling, unprepared. We have written elegies in the past, for others, Have seen plants ripen and die, plowed under. “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed.” No, not me. “That is not what I meant at all.” Love song as elegy, Lazarus returns, peach juice sliding down his cheek. “Be cool, whatever.” Listen to The Stones, rock The Who Once more at a free concert. It all takes shape. All. Once there was a moo cow, a great white whale, A raft floating down a slow-moving river, an old Mother rocking a cradle. Fuck it. Let’s go out West To where the East begins. “East side, west side / all Around the town. / The kids sang ring-a-rosie / London Bridge is falling down.” And once upon a while I went to war Not a great war, not a war to end all wars, not war to make The world safe for democracy. War as shrug, as yawn. Standing up takes it all out of you, last breath, last glimmer Of sight. Have I mentioned people? Those who mean so much? No. I don’t think so. We pass them on highways, watch them cope— Or not. Do you remember Otis… sitting on the dock of the bay? Janis yearning for a Mercedes-Benz (not!). A Beckett play? Curtain rising, ash bins displayed, a baby crying and The curtain falls. No action. No plot just a scream over the ashes. I would say something real and true—perhaps in the sequel. From the October 2012 issue


We’re All Optimists Here

Sheila Black

The light that shines over the damp rooftops and frozen yards is weightless. So is the breath of the three men waiting for the morning bus, their cupped hands, wet wool jackets. And the tree branches like the bones in a hand. You can never remember how many, only that there are more than you might imagine, and when crushed they make a dust that glitters, that is not pale, but the hard amber of all that seen use. Bourbon sugar, tobacco stain, the feel of a white oven spattered by long grease until you wonder what it is to give up at long last or what road you take to arrive there—the fretwork of the mind like these wet trees of early November, which tremble in the wind as if eager to shed their last tracery of leaf, whatever might hold them. Guy de Maupassant who wrote scenes of such crystalline clarity— those garrisons and ballrooms, the train car where the peasant woman nurses the starving soldier, who died crawling across a floor, unable to remember even his own name. And Isaac Babel who wrote the great story that ends in Maupassant’s death was never seen after 1941. Shot in one of 476 camps of the Gulag, his bones scattered in Norvisk, Vorkota or far Kolyma. Across the street from my house, children walk to school along the sidewalks, swinging their lunch boxes, lugging their backpacks. A boy looks at his feet as if they no longer belonged to him. The grass he strays over is a sheet of pale gold, demure as a bridal veil—no longer dead; yet not alive either. The knowledge that touches Babel with light fingers, what he reads in Maupassant shitting himself on the floor is simply that of no protection. Not even words. Somewhere this moment someone is dying who never wrote even a letter—tangle of thoughts which perish wordless, unnoticed as the blades’ slow stiffening, or the watery song of the mockingbird which lingers now in the arms of the bare locust. Above the breath of sky, a light which descends like cold coins on eyes. I think of Babel writing that no iron touches the heart like a period in exactly the right place. From the January 2013 issue


En Buenos Vientos

Gerard S. Robledo

En buenos vientos vienen gritos, horns, drums, and mesquite pouring over roof tops into my yard. Warm April breeze scoots across my porch swinging heavy laundry. T-shirt bottoms flutter like folklorico dancer’s skirts, in unison to the conjunto music billowing from Iglesia San Patricio, a street away. Roasted corn cups, giant turkey legs, and Lite beer sit at the edge of my tongue. My daughter twirls to the music of the distant festival, just loud enough to feel comforting. Dizzy with excitement, reminiscent of the joy that came with every festival or carnival—I smile. Building blocks in hand, she stomps her chancla on the old wooden porch, pausing, she declares, “Papi, I want arroz! … Por favor?” “Bueno, vamos adentro.” Her toddler feet lead me back to parenthood to make arroz y frijoles… and maybe cups of corn. From the April 2013 issue


Cordelia and the Truth

Bonnie Lyons

“Let God be in charge of beauty and let man be in charge of good.” —Grace Paley


In ancient Britain two old men sin— one misjudges his daughters, the other, his sons. Madness and blindness teach them. Rough justice, but justice. Then a moral monster issues orders and a flawless girl hangs. Finding this unbearable, Nahum Tate rewrote the ending in 1681. Cordelia lives and romances, and Lear survives along with a happy lie: Truth and virtue shall at last succeed. How could Shakespeare dare to tell this terrible truth? The gods, not God, rule in the play. From the July 2013 issue


Bathing in the Light, A Man

Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Because he does not trust his eyes because he believes in art and paintings and black and white photography—the feel of charcoal on his fingers as he rubs it onto the rough paper because he believes in the canvas and the paint and the brush because he believes in the words he has written and the words he is writing at this very moment more than in the things he sees more than in the women and in the men he has touched and has loved because he has come to understand that seeing is a beautiful and complicated and impossible thing that can never be understood or explained and knows too that he cannot even trust his own eyes and must live in his own blindness because he’s seen too much and felt too much and knows now that he cannot trust his own body and its deceitful and impossible desires so how can he begin to trust his own memory because he is tired of sitting in front of a screen his still nimble fingers numb from touching a keyboard for hours on end as if it were a piano banging out sad and angry notes that are struggling to become a song because he is tired of words owning him telling him what to do what to say but the words—the words—one day he will put them together in such a way and form a sentence that will beat like the wings of a bird and in that beating, beating, beating, he will see. He walks around the city with a camera. He listens to the sound of his own footsteps. It has been a cold winter. One cold front has followed another. Today, hints of green, the afternoon bathed in light again. He yearns to live on that line where the shadows begin. He must choose: to be swallowed by the light or be swallowed by the shadows of the night. From the October 2013 issue


Hasta la Madre

Victoria Garcia-Zapata Klein

para Javier Sicilia

“No puedo escribir más poesía… La poesía ya no existe en mí” Poetry’s no longer in you you say so I write for you about the atrocities we are responsible for 70,000 lives lost and counting the loss of Juan Francisco, your son your pain I do not know can only imagine Imagine peace hasta la madre I hear Tía Soni’s Y mi Tía Carmela’s Stories de Nuevo Laredo stories of bodies strung up, lynched for all to see Tía brings us the local paper as proof of the horror two months later the tías return and tell of bodies being burned alive so close all can hear the screams as they perish in a blaze of the worst kind of violence This war on drugs es puro pedo so full of shit filled with holes big as U.S. arms shipped to Mexico big as insurmountable drugs flowing into the States All along this border we share We share death, destruction damned blood shed in vain innocent blood shed, we disdain veins take in the toxins taking loads of lives lives lost fleeting as a hummingbird scared off as we try to touch the untouchable peace we seek in despair yet with hope hope for change in laws that they might legalize what comes from the Earth sweet maryjane simply soothes hundreds of thousands of lives transformed de-criminalized taking off the edge on this God-forsaken “War on Drugs” Cartels will lose some power every bit they lose means lives spared 70,000 and counting We cannot allow this injustice to prevail Javier, we cannot lose your poetry which serves to save lives line by line by line by line From the January 2014 issue



Ruth Friedberg

every summer morning we breakfasted near the greenery surrounding our favorite porch lost in conversation or in being together now I am alone discovering the dazzling flights and piercing songs of a hundred birds that have always shared my space unseen unheard From the July 2015 issue


Necessary Work

Bryce Milligan

From the making of harps to the making of houses he turned his hands to what needed doing, to what needed time and attention: building a house to live in building a house to die in Each smashed finger each bit of flesh taken by saw or blade or chemical took a bit of the music out of his hands, crippling what was there for the making. From the May 2016 issue


Homo Poeticus

Rod Carlos Rodriguez

a sliver, a whisper slides under my notice, digs deep in dark soil fresh, moist from last night’s quieting rain, until the first seed cracks through grains, flashes lightning and peels thunderclaps, drives other seeds to crack and explode over mountains, heralds forests to blaze over cities and deserts, sparks a wave of birds that crash and flood battle fields and war machines, the earth is drowned in Mother’s arms singing a lullaby for a singular species, homo poeticus From the November 2016 issue



Joe Jiménez

Growth is the hardest place for harm to lay its hair. Of troublesome seed, we invasive bunches, all narrow spike, fungus smut—the seedhead tells it all. Despair, Self-Loathing running hands through my beard. & God out back having His heels washed in water you & I use for drink—. By our roots Old Words echo: You don’t need much moisture to seed now. Cut us down, papi— only opens the body to spread its beads. Improvise, I tell myself. Let the shit go. All of it means this: not everyone has a phoenix inside. Some of us growing beside roads, among dented beer cans & ditch weeds, waste & trees smothered with hunger, sightlessness, maladies. but What if there is nothing glamorous inside? Can I make a good bed out of tallboys & plastic bags? If nothing in the world calls your name, mouth wide, teeth gleaming, If the back & arms you carry riddle with black spots & marks made by birds who don’t want us here— I will remind you: There are people who did this before us, brown & black-spotted, yellow, with rattails, born from what others did not want & loathed & aimed to never let belong, & so, we are here today— the field is wide. We make saliva from root & light. Our spikelets grow, & do you feel the wind? From the February 2017 issue


How to Build a Summer Vacation

Alexandra van de Kamp

Mine would begin with words like innocuous or synesthesia. I would be reading Madame Bovary and learning foreign words for clothes, such as cravat and fez. There would be a smattering of dust, lavender-black dust, as in the darkness under trees in the month of June, exceptional for its cavalcades of rain. Fog would suffocate cities in indecision, obscure the green islands offshore— hallucinogenic arms embracing nothing. In the silver glow of headlights, the streets would grow wet and impatient. Raspberries would buoy up from the scratch and sniff cardboard garden in my hands. I’d press my nose to my husband’s skin and watch a salty tide of bruised fog, a riverbed of unpicked fruit, rise up to me. What mingles now in that next room? The wallpaper in the hotel had an antique, well-used odor; flowers in rose and gold waltzed up and down our room. The bathroom tiles were contact paper peeling up under my toes. I want each day to pour like an hourglass— svelte and methodical; loss encased in a seasoned decanter and divvied out like a wine brought up from a temperature-controlled cellar. I want to be snagged thickly to something. In the museum, in the painting, the woman’s dress in the summer garden radiated from across the room like a halogen street lamp turning on at 6PM. The pointillist beach scene grew more vivid at two hundred feet. Clarity is just a matter of distance mixed with a massive dollop of patience. On the ferry ride home, we spied the island famous for its scientific experiments. After, possums curled up along the side of the road— gray, fleshy semi-colons—and we drove on, trying to beat the storm. From the May 2018 issue


Flying Migrants

Mo H Saidi

Beyond the barbed-wired border along the guarded road lush grass carpets the land. Old wooden fences enhanced by the thistles divide ranches. The islands of bluebonnets, patches of black-eyed Susans and bands of sunflowers follow the road north. A vast pasture is surrounded by live oaks sprouting with twigs, new leaves. No Trespassing signs do not stop the gaggle of geese coming from the south heading north flying over the wall, gliding, landing on the hospitable land where they tend to their wings for the long flight north where soon the ice melts and floes ride the fresh streams. The monarchs are on the move, too. Darting from petal to petal they proceed to the borderless hills ignoring the barriers and laws in the books. From the May 2019 issue


(Longhorns in Spring)

Larry D. Thomas

Even her mother’s pelvic opening is grander than a normal cow’s to ease the birthing of calves. Stitched to the glorious morning with the fine silken thread of birdsong, she eases Patches to the grass in the thick, protective bubble of a birth sac. With the grandness of her tongue, she licks Patches clean, and nudges her to the awkward, wobbling stilts of new legs, another never- to-be-duplicated patch in the dazzling warm quilt of the herd. From the August 2019 issue


Pantoum for Mineral Wells

Carol Coffee Reposa

Beneath the crumbling concrete, peeling walls, Old times rise up from under rust and rock— Those endless parties, concerts, lavish balls— They’re all freeze-framed today. There is no clock. Old times rise up from under rust and rock. Ghosts gaze out on their vacant town, nonplussed. They’re all freeze-framed today. There is no clock, Just silence on the haunted streets, and dust. Ghosts gaze out on their vacant town, nonplussed, To see the dingy burger joints and stands. Just silence on the haunted streets, and dust Before those spectral faces, empty hands. To see those dingy burger joints and stands, “For Sale” signs everywhere, and shuttered stores. Before those spectral faces, empty hands, The past pours out through windows, bolted doors. “For Sale” signs everywhere, and shuttered stores That grand hotel, the Baker, rises still. The past pours out through windows, bolted doors. A ragged sentinel atop a hill, That grand hotel, the Baker, rises still. Hallucination in red brick, it stays, A ragged sentinel atop a hill Outlasting ice storms, hail storms, searing days Hallucination in red brick, it stays, An avatar beneath a hard blue sky Outlasting ice storms, hail storms, searing days Reminder of what’s lost, a silent sigh. Those endless parties, concerts, lavish balls Unfold in empty rooms and phantom space Beneath the crumbling concrete, peeling walls, Vast fossil of a vanished time and place. From the November 2019 issue

recogiendo armas de fuego

Octavio Quintanilla


From the November 2019 issue


Fire Fruit

Andrea "Vocab" Sanderson

Give me an artist whose life hasn’t been spoon fed, who had to scrap for bread, dang near fought from the dead. It’s been said that we write our best when we’ve emotionally bled. So, we have been led down a path of pain to spread our hearts out on a canvas of life. Gobble up all the turmoil and strife. My sorrow is ripe for the picking. Now that’s a new type of Strange Fruit, plump with nectar-bittersweet juice.


Who made you feel it deep within? Who brought the connection that lured you in? Whose web spins and when you are in, you don’t struggle to be free? Who is it baby, who is it baby? Was it Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitz? Was it Nina Simone, with her pouty lips? Or Chaka Khan? Patti Patti, Miss Mahalia, or Janis? Sade, with her hypnotic hips?


          Tell me: whose fruit have you bitten?


All these ladies got my kryptonite, every time they step to a mic! And at night when I can’t clear my head, can’t calm my heart, their voice is a torch from a subtle spark. My dark can’t hold them, but my belly can. I eats their fire fruit and understands. I swallow the pyre and my tongue is ignited with their tune. I eat their fire fruit, until I am consumed.


From the May 2020 issue


Single Edition

Laurence Musgrove

I’d like to Read a book About my books: A small volume To brief me again On what I’ve read, Like these piled on My coffee table Or bookcased on the wall, Plus, those at school, Shelved and aging Or scattered across my desk. Also, paperbacks—brown and brittle, Shared and never returned (Who knows what’s been forgotten). It would be slim enough To thumb each night, Lamplit as I doze. This reader of this reader Will send me back in time, But return me once again Trailed by friends And teachers who said, You might just find it here. From the November 2020 issue


The Only Thing We Have to Fear

Juan R. Palomo

Angel remembers his mother’s first arrest: a knock on the door, flashlight on darkened living room, handcuffs on his mother’s wrists. “I was in second grade,” he said. “I never forgot that night, and I’ve lived in fear of losing my mother every night since then.” His sister had stayed with protesters until long past midnight. By sunrise, she was home, packing her mother’s suitcase—toothpaste, brush, pants, shirts. “Nobody should have to pack her mother’s bag,” she said.
The New York Times, 02.10.2017

They came once each summer, unnoticed until their green vans were at the edge of the North Dakota sugar beet fields; then the ominous figures hobbled to where we labored. That’s when the fretful fear began its journey up my spine. In abysmal Spanish and shoddier manners, they demanded the legal status of my parents (and other adults working near us). The sheepish response: born in Mexico, in this country since 1920. And no, they had no documents; they had never needed any. The men in green growled and grumbled about my parents’ lack of responsibility in not seeking legal status. Next time, they said. And then they left, to check on other Mexicans on other farms. Silence filled the air as they made their way to waiting vans. But as they drove off over dirt roads and showed no intention of returning, the humor slowly emerged, with people joking about each other’s reactions and answers, and who acted more scared. A way of releasing the tension, perhaps, but we remained scared. Would our parents be exported, like cattle or produce, to a country they’d not lived in or visited in more than three decades? An unlikely outcome, true, after so many years in this country. But these were men with uniforms, badges. And guns. They instilled fear, and when you’re young, fear billows. So my siblings and I wondered how we’d fend for ourselves in those cold windy northern plains if my parents were to be taken away. The fear! It whetted its claws and clung on mercilessly. That is what I think about when I hear about beautiful walls, bad hombres, rapists, and deportations. I picture kids like Angel with nightmares of badges dragging their parents away in handcuffs. I think of parents fearing they’ll be hauled away by green uniforms. I wonder what that’ll do to their lives, and the lives of their children. I’m afraid for those parents and those children, and for a nation choosing guns and sealed borders over families’ secure futures— and over their right to live without fear, and the fear of the fear. From the August 2021 issue


COVID Continuing

Philip C. Kolin

devil’s drool, aerosol particles still floating— lung bombs exploding now for almost three years; 400 died today in the U.S. and more will join ghosts worldwide who could form their own country, so many lost, so many faces that will be absent in family albums; we look for them but there is only white space; they have gone into a COVID winter that immerses us in chills and questions, questions about when COVID will die out, when will it be herded into exile the way cholera or polio were; why do we still have to wear masks indoors; why do old men so quickly fall into COVID brain fog and misremember the dates that enshrine their lives and the places that should be included in a proper obituary. ER doctors are changing specialities; they have seen too much COVID, exhausting their compassion; masks are not tearproof. ICU windows have become looking glasses into medicine’s battle with inevitability. COVID has wormed its way into a dangerous normalcy. “When did you get your last bout of COVID?” a friend asks as if the virus were as ordinary and expected as getting a haircut or a lottery ticket. But COVID is not a simple once over disease; it plants venom into the bodies it hunts and then watches as that venom spreads and then hides, year after year, until your daily ration of oxygen shrinks and you gasp to death. From the November 2022 issue


This Morning

James Dennis

This morning I can’t think of anything to write about other than the way the light slowly moves across my bookcases until it comes to rest, just for a little bit, on Borges. To be honest, I cannot blame the light for pausing there for a bit of a respite. I, too, have lingered within the great athenaeum of his thoughts. Wanting to break the ice, I summon my most affable, yet literary, smile and offer up a suggestion to the morning light: “Have you given any thought to Gabriel García Márquez?” From the February 2023 issue






Still Life
BB Saidi
From the June 2010 issue

Disturbed Mind
Ulrike Rowe
From the January 2011 issue

Maripat Munley
From the April 2011 issue

Jim Harter
From the October 2015 issue

White-Faced Ibis, Female Anhinga, Black-Necked Stilt
Lucia LaVilla-Havelin
From the May 2016 issue

Edge of the World
Margie Crisp
From the February 2020 issue

The Corvus COVID-19
Mary Jean Ruhnke
From the August 2021 issue

Selection from Tierra y Mujer
Verónica Castillo Salas
From the May 2022 issue

Madonna and Child
Kaldric Dow
From the August 2022 issue


Creative Nonfiction




Why Poetry Matters:
Letting the World Come to You

John Hammond

Poetry matters, among many other reasons, because it is by its nature revelatory, surprising, and liberating. It re-connects us with the familiar world we mistakenly think we know, while offering glimpses of the mysterious and untranslatable worlds we know we don’t know. In so doing, poetry also becomes a communal experience, in which the poet shares with the reader a mental receptivity or alertness that underlies the poem’s fresh vision. As Jane Hirshfield says in Nine Gates, “Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being… [it is] a different mode of knowing.”

There are, of course, other ways of knowing, so it may be helpful to compare the way of poetry with that of science, as described by Richard Preston in his book First Light, a delightful account of astronomers at Mt. Palomar Observatory. Preston says people have the incorrect belief that science is the accumulation of self-evident facts. In reality, he explains in wonderfully poetic terms, the work of science “is about mystery and not knowing…. It is like trying to crack a monstrous safe that has a complicated, secret lock designed by God.” He says, “Some of God’s safes are harder to open than others [and so] you may spend a lifetime playing the tumblers and finally die with the door still firmly locked… [but] sometimes there is a faint clicking sound, and the door pulls wide open, and you walk in.”

Poetry is also, of course, about mystery and not knowing, but what the poet seeks is more likely to be hiding in plain sight, and it is vision itself that must be unlocked. You might say that poetry is more like “entering” than “breaking and entering”: it finds a clearing in the mind that is inaccessible through force of logic or luck, experiment or calculation. This is akin to a spiritual state of mind, a kind of concentration that respects the individuality of all things, leaf by leaf.

David Wagoner’s poem “Lost” speaks of just such a mind-set: “Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you/ Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,/ Must ask per- mission to know it and be known.” This is how to see the world truly, like Raven and Wren for whom no two trees, no two branches are the same. “If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,/ You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows/ Where you are. You must let it find you.”

“Stand still” is the poem’s only refrain, the human challenge in a hurtling, multi-tasking world to allow the forest to find us. Poetry offers a way to stand still, to scoop up experience as it streams through our hands and bring its cold taste to our lips even as it spills away.

Jane Hirshfield’s “The Envoy” also beautifully illustrates this openness to the world, while acknowledging that there are mysteries we will never know. One day she confronts a rat in a room and two days later a snake: “I don’t know how either came or left.” She also confronts uncertain feelings—“terror? happiness? grief?”—that enter her body and then leave, and sees that we stand at the edge of many worlds, fabulous and unseen yet ever-present: “There are openings in our lives/ of which we know nothing./ Through them/ the belled herds travel at will,/ long-legged and thirsty, covered with foreign dust.” Open and permeable to experience, the poet can now speak with a language that seems magically to reveal a new the world we thought we knew, as though seeing it for the first time.

Consider the surprising yet natural metaphors that emerge in Albert Goldbarth’s “The Shawl.” He recalls him- self at age twenty traveling on a bus at night: “He could see himself now/ in the window, see his head there with the country/ running through it like a long thought made of steel and wheat.” He is “discovering himself/ to be among the tribe that reads. Now his, the only overhead turned on. Now nothing else existed:/ only him, and the book, and the light thrown over his shoulders/ as luxuriously as a cashmere shawl.”

Here is Margaret Atwood infusing an abstraction with new life in “Secrecy”: “Secrecy flows through you,/ a different kind of blood./ It’s as if you’ve eaten it/ like a bad candy,/…like the reverse of uttering… and now it’s in you, secrecy./ Ancient and vicious, luscious/ as dark velvet./ It blooms in you,/ a poppy made of ink.”

Or we may see our lives freshly in a story that goes down an unexpected path, as in Wesley McNair’s pitch perfect “The Rules of the New Car.” The speaker, with a burgeoning family, buys a new car and establishes rules: “The first to go/ was the rule I made for myself about/ cleaning it once a week, though why,/ I shouted at the kids in the rearview mirror,/ should I have to clean it if they would just/ remember to fold their hands.” As other rules disintegrate along with the car and he aches for all that is lost, the poem moves into a beautifully paced, unexpected coda: “Then one day, for no particular reason except/ that the car was loaded down with wood/ for the fireplace at my in-laws’ camp… my wife in the passenger seat,/ the dog lightly panting beside the kids in the back,/ all innocent anticipation, waiting for me/ to join them, I opened the door to my life.”

There is the irony, of course, of making rules in an unpredictable and messy world where, as they say, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.” But in a larger sense, McNair’s poem leads to another form of the acceptance and openness described in “The Envoy” and “Lost,” all seeming to say: “Let the world come to you, and you will find yourself.”

Reading or writing a poem can show us a way to do this— to stand still, glimpse the secret openings in our lives, and re-discover the world that waits in front of our noses to be seen.


From the September 2009 issue


Atticus Finch Was a Lousy Lawyer

Jay Brandon

The State Bar of Texas (and I’m sure other bar associations around the country) sometimes asks a lawyer to describe his or her “Atticus Finch moment”; that is, when he did something that made him proud to be a lawyer. For me an Atticus Finch moment would be when I knew I’d screwed up and lost a case as a result.

We only know of one case Atticus Finch tried, and he lost it. Not a close loss, either: 12-zip. It was a tough case, sure, but as far as we know Atticus’ trial batting average was zero. Make no mistake about it, either: he lost it. It wasn’t taken from him. The prosecutor in the trial was incompetent, relying on nothing but prejudice. When he finished his questioning of the complaining witness, it wasn’t even clear that a crime had been committed, let alone that Tom Robinson had done it. The answers he elicited from the supposed victim were so vague they didn’t even prove a crime: “He took advantage of me.” Did he swindle you in a con scheme?

The first time I saw the movie, when the prosecutor finished his questioning I was thinking, “Insufficient evidence.” This is a reason for a case being reversed on appeal, or for a judge to grant a directed verdict of not guilty: when the state hasn’t even proven its case. As an appellate lawyer myself, I was thinking Tom Robinson had a good chance of having his conviction reversed on appeal.

Until his lawyer began his cross-examination. Where the prosecutor had failed to prove the crime, obliging Atticus filled in the blanks: “Are you saying that my client raped you? That he sexually assaulted you?” Yes, she says. Yes. While I thought, Thank you for clearing that up for the jury, defense lawyer.

After his client is dead (and if Atticus Finch were my lawyer, I’d contemplate suicide too), Atticus says, “We had a very good chance on appeal.” Well, you did until you started questioning the witnesses. Then your client was doomed.

His final argument was less than stirring, too. “Tom Robinson is not guilty,” he says. I imagine jurors thinking, Wow, that turned me completely around on that question. Now I’m voting not guilty. He said it with as little flair as I’ve ever heard such words spoken, too. In his Oscar-winning performance, Gregory Peck plays Atticus as the big white stiff of the courtroom, the legal equivalent of a basketball center in 1952, with a vertical leap of half an inch.

I grant you, Atticus Finch does the morally correct thing, taking a case he knows will make him unpopular in some quarters. I don’t know of many lawyers who will turn down a judge who personally asks them for a favor, but still, he does the right thing. I just wish he’d done it better.

I don’t think much of him as a father, for that matter. After making himself the most hated man in town, he lets his children walk home alone at night through the woods, when he’s sitting at home available to pick them up. He didn’t attend the play, either, and I can’t remember ever missing one of my children’s school events. But that’s for another essay. To conclude this one, let me give you another example of his legal ineptitude.

After the climax, when justice finally triumphs after a fashion (with no help from Atticus), and Jem is lying in bed with his broken arm, Atticus is trying to remember how old his son is, to figure out whether he should be arrested as an adult or a juvenile. In a situation where any parent, let alone a halfway decent lawyer, would be trying to deflect official scrutiny from his son, Atticus is trying to turn him in. Even the not so bright sheriff finds this baffling: “Your boy never killed Bob Ewell.” Luckily for Jem, his father wasn’t representing him.

I haven’t had any Atticus Finch moments, being a pretty fair lawyer myself. He’s revered in some circles, including (to my amazement) legal ones, but do me a favor. If I’m ever unconscious, unable to think for myself, and arrested for something in Maycomb, Alabama, in the 1930s, and Atticus Finch is the only available lawyer, here’s the favor: Maycomb seems like a good-sized town, certainly big enough to have a village idiot. Hire him to represent me instead.


From the October 2011 issue


Writing through Grief

Nan Cuba

Fiction writers have long channeled grief over the death of a loved one into their work, but that impulse is intensified when the person commits suicide. My brother, Paul Brindley, was twenty-six and I was twenty-three when he shot himself. In spite of his obvious depression about an accident that had left him a paraplegic, each person in my family felt guilty. In the first line of chapter one in my novel, Body and Bread, the protagonist, Sarah, says, “My first life ended when Sam committed suicide.” Sarah is an anthropologist, and the book is her attempt to understand how and why Sam died, and who was responsible. My unconscious motivation was to investigate the same questions but also to experience a spiritual connection to my brother, Paul.

When Poe’s cousin-wife, Virginia Clemm, died, he wrote “An- nabel Lee” and “Ulalume.” Mary Shelley’s first child, a daughter, was born prematurely and died a few days later, the same year Shelley began Frankenstein. The next year, Shelley gave birth to a son, and the following year, a daughter. This means that while she was writing the novel, she was pregnant most of the time after her first baby died. According to Ruth Franklin in her essay, “Was ‘Frankenstein’ Really About Childbirth?” a journal entry Shelley wrote shortly after her daughter’s death reads, “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lives.” Franklin argues that this echoes Dr. Frankenstein, who hopes to “infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” The creature’s birth occurs after “days and nights of incredible labor and fatigue.” Even though Frankenstein is seen as a cautionary tale against intellectual hubris, the death of Shelley’s daughter must have influenced the story. What parent wouldn’t want to bring her dead child back to life?

When Charles Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth, a seventeen-year-old Scottish girl, died suddenly, he had visions of her, dreamed of her frequently, and described her in a letter to John Forster as “that spirit which directs my life, and ... has pointed upwards with an unchanging finger for more than four years past.” According to Philip V. Allingham from Lakehead University, Mary inspired Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, Rose Maylie in Oliver Twist, Kate in Nicholas Nickleby, Agnes in David Copperfield, Lilian in The Chimes, Dot Peerybingle in The Cricket on the Hearth, Milly Swidger in The Haunted Man, and Marion in The Battle of Life. Citing Michael Slater, Allingham adds that Ruth Pinch, the governess in Martin Chuzzlewit, is another version of Mary, “Ruth’s sexless intimacy and joyous rapport with her brother Tom mirroring perhaps what Dickens felt his relationship with Mary had been in the three years he knew her.”

Georgina, Mary’s younger sister, moved into Dickens’ house as a replacement for Mary, and soon after, his main characters in The Battle of Life became Grace and Marion, sisters who resemble Dickens’ relatives in more ways than their initials. Both women in the plot love the protagonist, but Marion sacrifices any chance of happiness by vanishing so that Alfred will marry Grace. Nine years later, the same time between Mary’s death and Dickens’ writing of the story, Marion reappears as though returning from the dead. The narrator says, “[S]he might have been a spirit visiting the earth upon some healing mission.”

Most of Per Petterson’s protagonists are coping with the deaths of siblings and parents; they are reclusive, alone. In a recent New Yorker article, James Wood says a possible source for “the sense of hollow belatedness” is the 1990 Oslo-to-Frederikshavn ferry fire that killed 159 people, among them Petterson’s parents, brother, and nephew. As a result, Wood claims, “In Petterson’s work, the past ghosts its way back into the present with spectral power.” Wood believes this effect is achieved with sentences that “shift from present to past, mid-flow, without warning”; that they are often run-on, “tripping over their own dropped clauses, pricked with intermittence, properly punctuated but curiously unpunctual.” As a result, Petterson captures “the staggered distances of memory: one detail seems near at hand, while another can be seen only cloudily; one mental picture seems small, while another seems portentous. Yet everything is jumbled in the recollection, because the most proximate memory may be the least important, the portentous detail relatively trivial.” In other words, the protagonist’s “life is drifting, like the sentences [he] voices.” Constantly recalling childhood and family history, the character’s focus on memory puts him at risk of immobilization. Wood describes it this way: “Haunted by tragedy, stalked by absence, competitive with the dead, yearning for restoration, [the characters] experience life as elsewhere… living two lives, two versions of heroism: the actual and the ideal, the slightly fuzzy present and the sharply etched past.”

In his memoir, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation, John Phillip Santos investigates the mysterious death of an uncle by employing the Mesoamerican concept of cyclical time. Rather than a linear, chronological understanding of history, Mesoamer- ican cultures combined sober, historical fact with mythology and legend, connecting various dimensions from throughout the cos- mos. According to Suzanne Ruta in The New York Times Book Review, Santos “erased barriers between the old and the young, the living and the dead, Texas and Mexico.”

Like Petterson’s characters, my protagonist, Sarah, feels “a hollow belatedness” and is a recluse, almost immobilized because of her grief. She uses her anthropological skills to investigate childhood years with her family, but her drifts backward also collapse dimensions and include periodic hallucinations during which she is transported to pre-Columbian sites. These episodes escalate, signaling her longing to escape the present. As a high school and college student, she had been fascinated with religion and various theological beliefs. Now, she’s an expert in Mesoamerican metaphysics. Her father was a biblical scholar, and after graduating from high school, Sarah joined a religious group that camped in the Texas Piney Woods. In college, she learned Coptic and studied the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sam encouraged her teenage interest in pre-Columbian culture and gave her a copy of an Aztec jaguar mask that triggered her first hallucination. After Sam’s suicide, she became a student in the Ciudad Universitaria, where she learned Nahuatl and interpreted Mexihica codices. Her professor guided her through a tunnel beneath Teotihuacan’s Pyramid of the Sun, a place shaman-priests believed was the center of the earth. Standing in that hallowed spot, Sarah imagined that, like the Holy Ghost or teotl, the Mexicah sacred energy force, her brother’s spirit joined hers, that she became a living effigy housing Sam. This scene was my unconscious fictionalized account of a moment I’d experienced a few months after my brother’s death. I’d started crying while driving, so I pulled over to the curb. Gripping the steering wheel, I promised Paul that I’d live my life for both of us.

While I was writing the novel, I didn’t analyze my motivation for Sarah’s interest in metaphysics or for her hallucinations. Like Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein “infuse[ing] a spark of being into the lifeless thing,” or Dickens’ Marion “visiting the earth on a healing mission,” or a Petterson character’s past “ghost[ing] its way back with spectral power,” or Santos’ erasure of the “barriers between… the living and the dead,” Sam’s otherworldly presence permeated the story and miraculously brought my beloved brother back.


From the January 2014 issue


Fulfillment: Diary of an Amazonian Picker (continued)

Paul Juhasz

Day 11:

Tonight a story made the rounds about a picker who was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis. Yesterday, he came to work with a note from his doctor limiting him to light duty only.

Mike had him sweep the factory floor for 10 hours.

I’m reasonably certain Mike is a dick.

Day 12:

At Amazon, there are two types of totes: green ones and yellow ones. Each has specific rules governing their use. For example, yellow totes can be stacked 12 high, while greens can be stacked 15 high.

Each has a specific place in the Mods where they are stored. And those places are marked with signage.

Where the green totes go there are green signs reading “Stack Green Totes Here.” I find this sign quite efficient, perhaps even a touch elegant, in its straightforward simplicity.

Where the yellow totes go is also marked with signage reading “Stack Yellow Totes Here.”

But this sign is not yellow; this sign is also green.

There lurks an evil presence in this place, and it feeds and grows strong on my confusion.

Day 13:

When I posted the above on Facebook, a friend asked me the following question: “Hey Paul, what’s a tote?”

My response: “A tote is a plastic box in which pickers place our picks. It should not be confused with a toke, which is frequently one over the line, sweet Jesus.”

Day 14:

The rabbit hole runs deeper than I thought.

Not only is the person tasked with teaching employees about the policies designed to promote a safe and respectful workplace a racist letch with anger management issues, but it has been brought to my attention that The Sarge has never been in the military, or on a police force, or a part of any organization that bandies about terms such as “rank” and “sergeant.” He just declared one day that he was now a sergeant, and in this ridiculous world, a sergeant he became.

But I take comfort in this latest evidence of an insane world.

As I drove home this morning, I decided a promotion was in order.

Starting tomorrow, I am the Burgermeister.

Day 15:

I told Mike I had some serious reservations about a small order I was picking.

Mike: “What’s the problem?”

Me: “The order is just four items, Mike. Rope, duck tape, a jar of KY jelly, and a filet knife.”

Mike: “So?”

Me: “You don’t find this disturbing?”

Mike: “Not if his credit card clears.”

I’m almost positive Mike is a dick.

Day 16:

During tonight’s shift, I got to pick three dildoes and six bottles of anal lube.

Stay classy, America, stay classy.

Day 17:

Despite Mike’s cavalier attitude a few days ago vis-à-vis the rape kit, I am of the opinion that I should be culturally deputized to veto picks.

If someone is buying a Yodeling Pickle, they really need someone to protect them from themselves.

Day 18:

I have quickly learned to dread pick paths that take me to first floor sections E and F.

It is the home of oversized product, where only one or two items fill a bin and so you spend the shift rushing to the conveyor belts every two or three picks, and, if you listen closely, you can hear your rate numbers plummet.

It is a gloomy place, with less lighting than the other sections, and relatively speaking, it is quite deserted. On an average stay, you may only encounter 3-4 other pickers.

If one of them is Matt, you’re fucked.

It is also the preferred haunt of the janitor.

Given the size of this factory, there must be a several-person custodial staff, but I have only seen one janitor, and only in sections E and F.

Tonight, I was speeding down the main corridor separating the two sections, desperately trying to get from aisle 123 to aisle 3 before my scanner’s countdown ended when I saw him pushing his cart towards me, stopping at every trash can to see if it needed emptying.

I had already noticed that everyone ignores this janitor, and when I met his gaze, his cold, dead blue eyes not looking at me but through me, I understood why.

But my grandfather always told me that a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet, and so I determined to engage this fellow human being, no matter how creepy he was.

Me: “Hello.”

The Janitor: “I’m the janitor.”

Me: “Um, yes. I know. How are you tonight?”

The Janitor: “I’m the janitor.”

Me: “Ok. Um, well, I need to get going. You have a great night.”

The Janitor: “I’m the janitor.”

My grandfather is a senile old man.

I need to stop listening to what he says.

Day 19:

These first few weeks have been a bit taxing, both physically, as I adjust to the rigors of walking somewhere between 15-18 miles a night without stop, at least 4 nights in a row, and mentally, as I struggle against dysfunctional policies and a kaleidoscope of freaks and weirdoes I must now, through very modest fault of my own, call co-workers.

One of few palliatives so far is Wendell. Wendell is the place’s wily old veteran. Meeting me in the Mod one night, he approached and hailed me with a “You’re new here.” We chatted a bit, each offering our “how’d you get here?” stories—a ritualized exchange for the newly simpatico.

I only partially followed his tale, because I kept getting struck by just how much his wizened, wrinkled face and bushy, wheat and grey colored mustache called to mind The Lorax. Since it was late, and mental fatigue had set in, it was all I could do not to ask him how the Brown Bar-ba-loots were doing.

At the end of the chat, though, he gave me some advice, the first of many to come:

“Don’t kill yourself here. We got pickers so full of the shit management is spewing, that they bust themselves to get a rate of 180% to 200%. And they act all proud. Like they just did some- thing for themselves. But here’s the thing: Management doesn’t give a fuck about them, or you, or me. They want to squeeze every last ounce of energy you have, and when you have nothing left to give, they’ll fire your ass and replace it.”

With that, and a somewhat incongruous avuncular pat on the shoulder, he resumed his pick path and left me to resume mine.

As far as speeches go, this was not exactly “I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees.”

“What an odd man,” I thought to myself. “I sure hope he isn’t being melodramatic.”

Day 20:

Wendell is not being melodramatic.

The word on the floor is the guy with plantar fasciitis whom Mike had sweeping the factory as “light duty” is now unemployed.

He was fired because “he could no longer physically perform the duties for which he was hired.”

I may have made a mistake coming here.

Day 21:

There’s a guy here with Tourette’s.

The managers treat him like a mascot, always picking him out to lead stretches during standup.

I must admit it is a bit distracting to hear him insert an “ass- hole” or a “douche bag” into his ten counts.

His impulsive cursing is more jarring in the Mods, though.

Engulfed within the solitariness of one’s pick path, hearing a booming cry of “Shit!” or “Poop, poopy, poopness!” or turning into an aisle and having him suddenly yell “Fuckface” at you before he moves on, is just a bit disconcerting.

At the same time, there is an unmistakable aptness to it that is, at the very least, consistent with this setting.

Day 22:

Can there really be such a thing as The Essential Michael Bolton?

Day 23:

I would have been just fine never learning that I live in a world where one can buy a bacon wallet.

Day 24:

Another conversation with Matt:

He approaches, as if continuing an earlier conversation (which was certainly not the case), and begins:

Matt: “So, my cousin turns 20 today. Yeah, he’s a fourth generation American. I’m a third generation, so he’s a fourth.”

Me: “That would only work if you were your cousin’s father” (which, I reflect, could be entirely plausible).

Matt (oblivious to the interruption): “My mom is second generation and my grandmother, well, she came over here from Ireland. Or was it Slovakia? I can never remember which one it is.”

Me: “That’s understandable. I suppose those two countries get mixed up all the time.”

Matt: “Yeah, so, like I was saying. She came over in 1912, so she’s a first generation…..”

Me: “That’s not how it works. If she came over, she wasn’t born here. So she’s not a first generation American. She’s a last generation Irishslovakian. Your mother is a first generation, you’re a second, and who the hell knows what’s up with your cousin.”

Matt is silent a moment, then: “Yeah, that’s what I was saying. My grandmother would be a first generation, since she came over in 1912….”

Me (turning to run away): “I think I hear the fire alarm.”

Day 25:

For our comfort, Amazon has provided the break area at the East mod with a TV, three vending machines (one with soda, one with coffee, and one with snacks), and, inexplicably, a microwave.

Since facility policy prohibits us from bringing food from home onto the factory floor, one wonders what management thinks employees could be interested in microwaving.

Do Funyons, perhaps, tasted better heated?

2nd entry:

Funyons do not taste better when heated.

Day 26:

I had been moving full totes of Ramen noodles from Palletland to a conveyor belt for almost six hours. Looking at my scanner, I noted it was 11:58. Knowing that if I went back to the Ramen pallet, made the pick, and returned to the belt, I’d be burning up my lunch break, I docked my cart.

“Should we still pay you for those two minutes?”

Turning, I saw Mike glaring at me from behind his desk.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“I was just wondering, since you docked two minutes early, if you thought we should pay you for those two minutes?”

“Mike, I’ve been in Palletland all night. No one’s supposed to work there two straight quarters, but I didn’t complain. And if I make my next pick, I won’t get my full break. You know, the one mandated by law?”

A beat or two of silence.

“So, you don’t want to get paid for those two minutes, then?”

“You’re really gonna ride my ass about this?” I asked incredulously.

“No,” Mike replied. “I’m not going to ride your ass. I’m going to tell Payroll to deduct two minutes from your paycheck this week.”

With that, Mike pivoted and walked away.

Looking at my scanner, I saw I would be late for lunch anyway.

This place sucks.

And Mike is definitely a dick.

Possibly a big one.

Day 27:

Had a fascinating discussion with some of my fellow pickers tonight. Turns out Mike is not my manager. Our boss is the shift supervisor, Will, who spends the vast majority of each shift either in the bathroom or in the cafeteria. I think he is afraid of us.

Mike is a P.A. (Process Assistant).

Beyond telling us when we are not making rate, Mike has no actual supervisory authority over us.

I find this interesting.

2nd entry:

Mike was not in a good mood this evening. It seems that someone left a jar of Vaseline on his desk, with a hastily-scribbled note on it that read: “For Process Assistance.”

I think he suspects I had something to do with it.

Day 28:

Mike was in a really bad mood tonight. He read us the riot act, bandying about phrases like “know your place” and “respect for leadership.” As fascist rants go, it would have been quite impressive if his dour earnestness didn’t make it seem so melodramatic and just a little bit ridiculous.

Apparently what set him off was a poster board sign someone had taped to the P.A. desk, which read:

“Mike’s Male Enhancement Fund:

Because shouldn’t a big dick have a big dick?”

What I thought most odd was that in the donation jar affixed above the sign was $0.43, or exactly what my salary for two minutes of work would be.

I walked into the Mod struck by the amazing coincidence.

Day 29:

Tonight I picked an AC/DC tester.

Curious, I tried it on myself.

Turns out I’m Back in Black.

Day 30:

I mentioned to Mike that walking the standard 15-18 miles per night encased in the ejaculation of a consumer world gone mad like a human mosquito trapped in amber would suck slightly less if we could listen to some music on an iPod or something. He re- plied that we can’t, because Amazon sells iPods and there would be no way for security to know if the ones we had were truly ours or were stolen from the warehouse.

I thought about this for a moment, then mentioned that Amazon also sells pants, and so to make life more bearable for security, I would volunteer to stop wearing any from now on.

He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me for a moment or two, then turned and walked away.

I don’t think he likes me very much.

Day 31:

My mother always used to tell me that there’s one weirdo on every bus. I can never find him.

Here at Amazon, though, there is no such problem. I can throw a rock—of course, I would never bring a rock into the Mods, for Amazon may sell rocks and I wish to cause security no undue stress—but if I did bring a rock and throw it, I would hit any one of a large number of assorted oddballs, ne’er-do-wells and impossibly strange people.

I met the latest member of this menagerie tonight.

His name I do not know. He’s in his early twenties. And he is tall. Very tall. 6'4"-ish at the very least. He has a long face and unnaturally long arms that hang down below his knees, giving him a somewhat simian look. He courses through the Mods with an odd, bouncing stride, almost genuflecting with each step.

Tonight I nearly collided with him as I turned out of an aisle into the main strip; I had to pull up short as he raced down toward the other end of the Mod.

“My bad,” I apologized.

He showed no sign of having heard me, nor of noting my presence. His gaze remained transfixed ahead of him as he raced down, turning at last into a distant aisle.

I found the experience rather unsettling.

I think, based on his physical appearance, his gait, and the aura of creepiness surrounding him, I shall call him Lurch.

Day 33:

I walked past a gender prediction kit.

I assume the box contains a magnifying glass and the following directions:

1) Look for a penis

2) Repeat if necessary

Day 34:

During stand-up, Mike rambled on about the importance of damaging out picks if there is a problem. Apparently, it’s kind of a big deal when a customer gets broken crap. Seems they tend not to be happy; whatever.

He goes on and on about this and closes with the invitation, “if you can’t determine if something is broken, bring it to me and I’ll help you.”

I decide to take him up on this later in the shift, bringing over a Lego set and saying, “I think something’s broken in here.”

I shake the box, so he can hear all the pieces rattling about. “See.” He rubs his face with both hands and says, “Paul, get back to work.”

I don’t think he likes me very much.

2nd entry:

Undaunted by my earlier failure, I brought Mike another broken item, this time a Stanley stud finder.

Mike looked over the item. “Looks fine to me. What’s wrong with it?”

I took the stud finder from him and placed it on my chest. “See? Nothing happens. It must be broken.”

Day 35:

Today I picked a tube of 100% Pure Moroccan Oil.

At first, I was skeptical.

But then I read the label and, sure enough, it’s made from actual Moroccans.

Day 36:

As I steered my cart into aisle B 34, I ran into Lurch.

“Hey, what’s up?” I greeted him.

No response.

Not even a head nod.

He silently and impassively walked towards his next pick.

I think he may be a cyborg.


From the February 2017 issue


Guns and Hard Candy

Robert Flynn

My sister, brother, and I made our Santa Claus lists from catalogs—Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Bella Hess. We were a farm family in north West Texas, and when Santa didn’t deliver our mail-order presents in time for Christmas, our parents told us that Santa sometimes dropped by on New Year’s Eve on his way back to the North Pole and maybe he would leave our Christmas wish then. And he did. But it was another whole week after we had been waiting months for Christmas.

Stores in our town didn’t have Santas, but sometimes he was driven down Main Street standing in the back of a pickup and the elves at his feet threw unwrapped hard candy. I never really looked at Santa. I went for the hard stuff.

Santa did come to our two-room school house once. Our two teachers passed out bags of hard candy and Santa, who looked a lot like Dude Byars in women’s makeup with a mess of cotton covering the rest of his face, said, “Ho ho ho,” as though those were the only words Santa knew. The spectacle scared us so that Santa was never invited back.

We got another bag of hard candy at our church Christmas Eve celebration, and another bag of hard candy under our Christmas tree. Our dentist handed out hard candy with both hands. We racked up enough hard candy to rot our molars before our wisdom teeth arrived.

We didn’t have a chimney. We lined up our boots in front of the radiant gas heater that kept the house toasty for up to five feet in front of it. When Mother opened the oven door to baste the turkey, we basked in the blast of heat. We put our hands on the outside of the oven to warm them. Then we emptied our boots of an orange in each boot followed by hardshell nuts and hard candy to put our cold feet in the fire-roasted but sticky boots.

We knelt before the tree to discover what Santa had brought us. And also to keep our sockless feet from pressing against the overheated leather. My brother and I always got cap pistols, until we graduated to BB guns, then a .22, then a shotgun. In Texas guns outnumber armadillos, and Christmas blows in locked and loaded.

I spent one Christmas away from home in the Marines with 71 hours of liberty and no place to go. I hitchhiked to L.A. and spent one night in an all-night movie theater, one night in the bus station where I could sleep sitting up. If I stretched out I was awakened by a cop, who was respectful of my uniform, tapping on the soles of my shoes. I sat up and dozed until sunlight. I returned to the barrack where I could stretch out but had to get up at reveille, fall in outside for roll call, march to chow, and return to duty. It was the longest liberty I ever had.

I spent one Christmas in Vietnam and handed out hard candy and toys to kids who had never tasted candy, or seen picture puzzles or sidewalks on which to skate, sent by people back in the world who wanted to help. The Marines had removed war toys—guns, tanks, helicopters, war planes with which the children were familiar and taught them how to throw footballs and frisbees, skip rope alone or with others, hopscotch, and of course, there were baby dolls, white babies, blonde babies, Barbie babies.

My wife, Jean, gave me a hunting rifle one Christmas and an automatic shotgun another Christmas. I always think of guns at Christmas.

When I was little I loved stuffed animals more than guns, and I had asked Santa for a stuffed bear in a military uniform. America was at war. There was no bear of no kind under the tree. What had I done that was so bad? My thumb had been crushed when I was six months old, and the nail was attached only to the first half of the nail bed. I could point my thumb at a girl and bend half the nail back to make her scream, but that wasn’t mean. That was using my potential as Dad always told us.

I found a dead hawk that someone had shot and took it to Dad. He cut off one claw, tied a string to a tendon, and I could pull the string and the claw would close in some girl’s hair or maybe the back of her neck, but that wasn’t bad. The other boys thought it was funny. One of the older boys gave me a nickel for it. He asked to see it and when I handed it to him to look at he walked away with it. I followed him asking for it back, my voice a little louder each time so that the teachers would notice, and he gave me a nickel.

I still had another claw but I would have to tell Dad what happened to the first one.

And who told Santa? I had always been faithful to Santa and Santa had been faithful to me. I had heard older boys at school laughing about—No.

“Mom, Bob didn’t get a stuffed animal,” my sister said. I wasn’t really crying but my cheeks were wet and cold. Bettye was the oldest, and she protected me from my brother who was older, bigger, and didn’t like stuffed animals unless they were mine.

“Did Santa bring you a teddy bear?” Mother asked, while I waited for the dreaded another whole week speech.

“No, Ma’am,” I said and sniffed.

“Did you look everywhere?” she asked.

Why didn’t Mother say that Santa would bring it on his way back to the North Pole? I had been good and Santa—why couldn’t he stop by on New Year’s Eve?

“Jim, have you seen Bob’s teddy bear?” Mother asked.

“No ma’am.”

My heart failed me. Santa Claus failed me. I was afraid to speak for fear I would cry.

“Maybe Santa dropped it outside,” Mother said. What kind of Santa was that? Spilling presents all over the world and breaking kids’ hearts?

Mother opened the door and the porch was covered with snow. There were boot prints in the snow. Then I saw the stuffed bear. It wasn’t in uniform but that didn’t matter. I picked it up to hug but it was cold and wet. Santa had dropped my bear in the snow and had ruined it. I knew I was going to cry and I was too big.

Mother said, “I’ll put it in the oven and when it’s dry you can play with it.”

I was still in my flannel drop-seat longhandles and my boots were wet and cold but I walked around the corner of the house to follow the tracks. The tracks went to the garage and the barn. Dad must have opened the barn doors so the reindeer could get inside where it was warmer and the toys wouldn’t get wet. I didn’t know why the tracks went to the garage. I could think about that later when it no longer mattered.

I went inside to stand by the stove to shiver and get warm and watch my bear dry. Anybody could drop a bear in the snow. It wasn’t Santa’s fault. I knew that. Probably one of the deer had knocked it out of Santa’s bag and Santa hadn’t noticed. Reindeer were like that.

Wait ’til I told the kids at school! I had seen Santa’s boot prints in the snow. Dad had let the reindeer into the barn. I had almost seen Santa. And he wasn’t scary like he was when he came to school. He was a little scary but he loved everyone. How could I have ever doubted Santa?

Mother handed me the bear. It was almost too hot to hold and the oven had singed a bald spot on it. Santa almost ruined my present but I pressed it to my heart. I had a teddy bear. It wasn’t factory perfect with shiny buttons on its uniform, but I loved it all the more for its imperfections.

Santa stopped by on New Year’s Eve and left me a bag of hard candy and a heavy-glass pistol filled with tiny pills of hard candy. I broke it almost before I ate all the candy inside it.

My favorite Christmas was one that Jean and I and Deirdre and Brigid had celebrated alone. Our special Christmas. Christmas trees had not arrived, no houses were decorated, no Santas had appeared in stores. It was our special Christmas because I was leaving for Vietnam. Brigid, who counted the long days until her twelfth birthday, had won a ribbon at her school’s bicycle contest and the opportunity to compete in the city-wide contest. Brigid wanted a racing bicycle with gears for Christmas. Deirdre, who was almost fourteen, wanted an Appaloosa filly. She and Brigid each had a horse but Deirdre wanted a filly she could train and later breed.

I don’t remember what Jean or I received. It didn’t matter. We would make our girls’ dream come true.

I woke up to our traditional breakfast tacos. Jean and the girls had been up for an hour, Jean preparing breakfast, the girls al- most beside themselves trying to be quiet so as not to wake me. There was neither a bicycle nor a filly under the tree. After the first round of tacos, I put on my Santa cap and passed out presents. We each opened our presents, expressing thanks and admiring what the others had received. Yet, something seemed to be missing. We asked Brigid to go outside and see if Santa spilled a present on the way inside. Sure enough, a careless reindeer had knocked a racing bicycle with gears out of Santa’s sleigh.

Santa was bringing Deirdre’s filly from Pleasanton and they had not arrived. We told Deirdre her Christmas package was late but would be delivered. It was our Christmas but the mail still ran. Brigid asked if she could ride her bicycle until Deirdre’s present arrived. We whispered to her that Deirdre was getting her Christmas wish and let her take her bike for a spin. She returned and asked us to watch her run through the gears.

Deirdre waited outside for her package to arrive. Brigid rode her bicycle on short jaunts ready to race home when Deirdre’s gift arrived. Jean and I waited inside watching for a truck and horse trailer. When the truck stopped and began backing the trail- er down the driveway, Brigid raced for home. Jean and I went outside and Deirdre watched, afraid to believe she was getting her Christmas wish. Then the rancher opened the tailgate and introduced us to Teresa Babe or Teresa B, as Deirdre called her, a registered Appaloosa with a Joker B bloodline. Deirdre waited years for Teresa B’s promised spots to appear. They never did but it didn’t matter.

Maybe there are no perfect Christmases free of broken dreams, old sorrows, fearful futures, ancient grievances, dark shadows of Christmases past. But this was ours. We sang our hymns, prayed our prayers. There were other Christmases with much of the world celebrating the same day, with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and some little girl crying because she didn’t get the bicycle that she didn’t know she wanted until Brigid got one. But this was our special Christmas.

No need for Santa on his way back to the North Pole.

Our special Christmas was the last Christmas that the four of us were together. Shortly after I returned from Vietnam, Brigid died still short of her twelfth birthday.

I had been faithful and Santa had failed me. There’s no way to describe the hollowness of our family, the void, the silence, the extra plate, cup, spoon that no one wanted to see and no one wanted to remove. Laughter had vanished and might never reappear; photographs appeared documenting a missing person. The little dog that Brigid had rescued waited for her at the end of our road every day, although the bus didn’t stop anymore.

The death of every child is violent, regardless of the cause, blowing a huge hole in dreams of future birthdays, Christmases, Easters, and hunts for plastic eggs until candy inside the eggs was replaced with hard cash, Thanksgivings with family, friends, food, and football; Halloweens with scary masks and funny tricks, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, new births, reunions, trips to Mexico. The kind of violence no automatic weapons, extended clips or bump stocks can stop, no Pentagon budget can prevent.

We each were in our own private hell, missing a piece of our- selves, each of us knowing that two other people needed us to help them carry their unbearable burden when we were driven into the earth by our own unbearable load. I wanted to run some- place where I felt no one else’s pain so that I could endure my own. Jean held us together as best she could. Jean and I talked of a suicide pact but it couldn’t be murder/suicide. We had to go together but we couldn’t both desert Deirdre. Which of us was the stronger to stay behind and help Deidre with her grief and the confusion of teenage years?

Teresa B. was a companion when Deirdre needed to be alone but not by herself so that Deirdre could talk and cry. Deirdre’s friend, Pam, called us Mom and Dad, and brought laughter into the house.

What had we done that was so bad? Nothing. We were ordinary parents, giving our children what we believed they needed—love, time, vacations, vaccinations, braces, regular checkups with their doctors, education, Sunday School, piano lessons for Deirdre, guitar lessons for Brigid, riding lessons for both, although they believed they knew everything they needed to know. Some things spilled. Some things were singed or got wet. Most of all, we wanted to give them a safe home and a safe life that every parent wants to give and no parent can give. Not even God.

I endure Christmas with its joy as fake as the snow in store windows, as false as Rudolph’s red nose, as artificial as the lighted Christmas trees.

Santa will return on New Year’s Eve, but it’s the longest week of the year.


From the February 2018 issue


Short Fiction




The Yellow Balloon

Dani Adair-Stirling

Katie’s father carried her into the restaurant as she pressed her hands behind her ears. Her glands had been aching for days now. Poor Katie had only recently had surgery to have her tonsils out. She and her family had lived in this city for two days, and after the long journey to her new home and not knowing anybody, she was more upset by the pain than she might have been. It was strange to be in a new house with bare walls. Nothing seemed comfortable, least of all the never-ending sharp pain in her ears.

Inside the restaurant it seemed to take forever until their table was ready. Katie’s baby sister was getting fussy. The crying only seemed to make her pain worse. The girl pressed her fingers harder against her ears, willing the agony to lessen. While her mom tended to her little sister, Katie’s dad pulled her into his lap and held her close. He didn’t like to see his little girl in such pain.

A woman approached them smiling. “Your table is ready.”

Once everybody was settled around the table in a corner a young man came over. “Hello, my name is Bryan and I’ll be your waiter tonight. Does everyone know what they would like to drink?”

Katie’s mom looked up. “I’ll have sweet tea.”

Her dad said, “Sweet tea.”

Bryan looked at Katie. “What would you like?”

The child dropped her hands and muttered, “Sprite.”

He smiled encouragingly at the unhappy girl. “Great, I’ll be right back.”

Throughout dinner Katie’s pain seemed to get worse and worse. When she couldn’t eat any more, her mother gave her some children’s Tylenol. The pills didn’t work fast enough. Katie threw herself onto the floor and wiggled around crying with her hands pressed against the sides of her face. Her parents didn’t have the heart to ask her to sit up in her chair. Bryan walked over. He had been a camp counselor for two summers and felt he connected with children pretty well. “Uh oh, someone’s not happy.”

Katie’s mom turned to him. “Katie just had her tonsils out a week and a half ago and is still in pain.”

“Oh I’m so sorry, Katie. Would some dessert help?”

Katie clenched her teeth in pain and shook her head no. Her face was streaked with tears. Her dad turned to Bryan. “Thank you, though.”

Bryan smiled, “No problem. I’ll bring your check for when you’re ready.”

He walked away and into the kitchen. At the back he found what he was looking for. The restaurant owned a helium tank for birthday parties.

When he returned with the check he had a big yellow balloon tied to a blue ribbon for Katie. By that time the medicine had started to work, and Katie was sitting on her father’s lap wiping her tears. She looked at the balloon, hardly daring to believe it was for her. Bryan bent down and handed it to her. “Here you are, Katie. I hope you feel better soon.”

She grinned, took the balloon from him, and shyly said, “Thank you.”

She was embarrassed to be seen crying in public, and she was even more afraid that people would think she was throwing a fit. She wasn’t the type of child to throw tantrums, especially in public, and she tried never to cry in front of people. Bryan made a loop on the end of the ribbon and slid it around Katie’s small wrist.

After leaving a generous tip for the waiter, the Parkers left the restaurant. Katie couldn’t take her eyes off of her balloon. She made sure to wave to Bryan on the way out. He smiled and called, “Good night, Katie.”

In the car she held the balloon in her lap so her dad could see out the back. Her baby sister took interest in the balloon too. Little Olivia could only sit up and babble. She didn’t do much yet. Katie looked at her. “Olivia, you’re just a baby. You’re too little to have a balloon. But when you get bigger you can play with my balloon and me.”

This should have hinted to the parents of dramas to come, but they just thought it was cute. At home Katie’s mom said, “Bath-time, Katie.”

“What about my balloon?”

“Balloons don’t take baths. Little girls do.”

Katie compromised by letting the balloon float above the toilet while she played in the bathtub. When she got out, she pulled the blue ribbon to her room, hooked the loop around the bulb on her bed, and slept soundly. She was so worn out that she didn’t notice that the crying coming from her parents’ room was not Olivia in her bassinet.

Since Olivia was born, her mother had been very emotional. Little things seemed to bother her, and she slept a lot during the day. The move especially made her happy and sad at the same time. Such a combination made her upset also. She tried to hide it from her daughter, but grownups will never realize just how perceptive small children can be. When Katie asked what was wrong, her mother said that babies are hard work and tiring. Katie was a good big sister. She tried to help with Baby Olivia. She watched her dad warm formula in the bottle and in a few days was an expert at feeding her little sister. She kept Olivia happy and taught her things about her toys and her favorite movies.

And so the next few days passed. Everywhere Katie went her balloon went too. She was extra careful around ceiling fans and looped it around her wrist whenever she went outside. People in stores smiled at the little girl followed by her yellow balloon. A few times Katie let her little sister touch her rubber companion, but she was worried that Olivia wouldn’t be gentle with it. At the jingle of a bell she made sure her balloon was out of reach of Jingles, the cat. When they bought Jingles a couple of years earlier, Katie’s dad had said that the kitten needed a bell on his collar so that he couldn’t ever sneak up on them or get lost either. Katie decided that Jingles was the only name for a small cat that rang as playfully as this one.

As the family got to know their new area, Katie did so in her own way. After a tearful morning Katie was permitted to take her balloon to her new church if she promised to hold it the entire time they sat in big church. In Sunday School children asked about the balloon and Katie happily told her story. It was a simple process, but nobody seemed to realize that the balloon had become a comfort object for Katie. It was a conversation piece and a way to meet new kids. She didn’t need to be shy because she had her balloon to hold tight.

As the days went on, the balloon drooped lower and lower. Finally Katie was reduced to pulling the ribbon as the yellow balloon dragged along the ground. When Katie came to the break- fast table like that her mother said, “Katie, it might be time to throw your balloon away.”

The little girl opened her eyes wide and shouted, “No!”

Her mom patiently tried to explain, “Your balloon doesn’t float anymore, honey. It’s losing its air.”

Katie picked up her dirtied balloon and held it to her chest, “I don’t want to throw it away! I want to keep it!”

“Ok, that’s all right. Why don’t you sit down and have breakfast?”

Katie suspiciously positioned her yellow companion away from her mother and sat right next to it.

A few days later Katie sat on the couch watching The Swan Princess in the late afternoon. The sun streamed through the window, keeping the child warm and lighting up the balloon. The balloon was much darker since it had shrunk. There was dirt and fuzz all over it, and it was worn thin from having been scraped against the sidewalk every day. She heard Olivia cry in the other room.

Katie dutifully rose from the couch and dragged her balloon with her to check on her sister. Her dad was in the backyard setting up a swing set for the girls, and her mom was napping. Jingles looked up from his resting place and followed the balloon with his eyes. What nobody but the cat knew was that earlier in the afternoon the bell had annoyed Katie’s mom so much that she angrily took his collar off so she could have some peace.

POP! Katie whipped around and saw Jingles scamper in the opposite direction. She let loose a piercing scream that carried throughout the house and a few houses to each side. The noise was one that can only be made by a prepubescent child. Her dad ran inside, and her mom woke and went to find Katie.

They found their small daughter crouched on the carpet holding her popped balloon in her hand. The dirty yellow rubber looked like it too was sad as it drooped over her fingers, clinging to a long, blue ribbon. She had tears in her eyes. She looked up at her parents and cried, “Jingles popped it!”

Her mom was relieved that it was just the balloon. She said, “Oh Katie, we’ll buy you another one.” Then she turned to get Olivia.

Katie turned her moist blue eyes to her dad. “Daddy, I don’t want another one. I want this one.” The father nodded and picked up his little girl. He walked her and the balloon both to the couch and sat down with Katie on his lap. “Let’s finish watching the movie. Afterward we’ll find a proper place to put your balloon.”

She sniffed and leaned her head onto her father’s protective chest. “Ok.”

That evening as the sun set Katie stood in the backyard as her father dug a hole beside the swing set. When Katie was ready she gently placed the remnants of her beloved companion into the hole and carefully wrapped the ribbon so it would fit as well. She used her hands to push the dirt back into the hole. When she was done, her father finished the job by patting the mound with the shovel. They walked back inside with her small dirty hand encased by his large dirty one.


From the July 2012 issue



Jasmina Wellinghoff


When the plane lands at Sheremetyevo Airport, there’s instant commotion.

“So many people!” exclaims Dragan, the Serbian dancer, who was a big hit with New York audiences in Swan Lake just a few days before. From where Sonia is seated, she can’t see much but she is nervous. She hears the company’s assistant director trying to make himself heard over the din.

“There may be reporters out there. Please do not speak to them,” he says. “Just go straight into the building, smile, wave, and just pass by them.”

“They don’t care about us. We all know why they are here, they and the officials,” shouts Dmitri, causing a wave of chuckles to travel down the aisle where most passengers are standing, eagerly waiting to deplane. When the line of bodies moves forward, Sonia is finally able to get up and glance through a window on the other side of the aircraft. A funny tickle starts in her throat and her knees suddenly feel weak as if the kneecaps had partially melted. People sometimes refer to knees going weak due to extreme excitement, shock, or fear, but the sensation is foreign to her. Excitement, shock, fear? She isn’t sure. Everything that happened in the past four days had been strange, confusing, unreal. Sonia may be arriving home but she feels on foreign territory at the moment.

She considers going to the bathroom to fix her face but the thought doesn’t stay in her tired mind long enough to move her to action. The three-day stand-off at La Guardia Airport and the transatlantic flight have taken their toll. If only she could post- pone this arrival a little longer!

Now she is on the top of the staircase, looking blindly over the crowd, hoping to spot her mother. The people on the ground are applauding while a man in a navy suit and tie is approaching the bottom of the stairs, broadly smiling at her. Sonia continues standing there, clutching her purse to her chest, with the sun in her eyes. I should be enjoying this, she says to herself. Yet she’s reluctant to move; would really prefer to duck back inside.

“Do you want me to help you down?” asks Dragan, standing right behind her. There are some giggles in the crowd as long seconds tick away. When a little cloud momentarily obscures the sun, Sonia can see a little better, so she begins to move, stepping down gingerly, slowly as if she may lose her balance and fall head down on top of the smiling man. Someone rushes toward the plane to hand her a bouquet of flowers; she shakes hands with several dignitaries, one of whom looks important and vaguely familiar. Is he the minister of culture? she wonders. This man congratulates her for being a patriot, says how proud of her everyone is. Other people start grabbing her elbow, her shoulder, a few hug her. Then her mother is suddenly right there, crying, embracing her. So Sonia finally speaks in a whisper, “It’s nothing, Mama, it’s nothing. Everything is fine, Please don’t cry. I am back.”

Barely five days later, she finds herself back on stage, portraying the Lilac Fairy in the Bolshoi’s grand production of The Sleeping Beauty. Ivan Dorovky wanted her there, ready or not, because she was the new draw, the woman of the moment, a na- tional heroine, practically. Indeed, the theater is packed. This is her first opportunity to be the Lilac Fairy, a role second in importance only to Princess Aurora’s, who is portrayed in this production by Diana Maleva, a superstar of the Bolshoi Ballet. Sonia has made up her mind to wow them. She pushes her extensions higher and higher, whips her way across the stage in chiseled fouetté, turns and manages to hold her body in arabesque and on pointe with no support for what felt like way too long. This was something she had never been able to do before. A sense of the transformational power of dance invades her. So she beams at the royal courtiers and the princess she is about to save from certain death by putting her to sleep for a hundred years.

At curtain time, flowers pelt the stage in her direction, shouts of “bravo” echo through the hall as someone leads her to the center to take her bows. “Where is Maleva?” she fleetingly thinks. “Is she going to hate me for stealing the spotlight?” Yet, the rivulets of relief and pleasure have already started percolating through her body. After twenty years of dancing, Sonia Zorina is finally being feted like the star she was in her childhood fantasies. Her smile is so broad it begins to look like a grimace.

At the stage door an hour later, cameras are clicking while fans and reporters call out to her. Are you having any regrets? Have you heard from Yuri? What did you tell him? Sonia smiles some more without replying. No, she isn’t going to talk about Yuri. Not yet. This has all happened too fast; she wouldn’t even know what to say.

“You are very beautiful!” an American reporter shouts out. The “Woman of the Moment” turns to look at him. “Tell that to my husband,” she says.

Normally after a performance she would be riding home with Yuri to their spacious apartment on Gorky Street, but tonight she is alone in her mother’s car, driving back to the tight little apartment Vera has lived in for more than twenty years. Just a few days ago, she and Yuri were together in New York, tired from the tour but content and relaxed. Then a plane takes you 4,600 miles away in ten hours…. The euphoria she felt on stage is leaking out of her fast; it’s clearly hopeless to try to hold on to it.

Moscow is subdued at this hour, its broad avenues glistening in the wet semi-darkness left behind by a light rain. Mos- cow had been the city of her mother’s dreams. Almost from the day when Vera signed up her daughter for ballet lessons, she started talking about going to Moscow someday, where Sonia would join other stars-in-the-making at the best ballet academy in the world. There, she would be seen by the legendary choreographer Oleg Semionov, and everything would start happening for her girl who was the center of her life. Not that there was much else Vera could center her life around. It had been just the two of them ever since her husband left when Sonia was barely four, ostensibly to take a temporary good-paying job in Barnaul, on the southern edge of the Siberian steppe. At first he had sent money every two months or so, money that made Vera and Sonia’s lives much more comfortable. Vera was lonely but pleased, still convinced that he would come back with a lot more money, enabling the family to live “decently.” That’s the term she used, “decently,” meaning eating in a restaurant once in a while, going to the theater, having people over for a nice dinner. With money, you can have friends. Who wants to come to sit in their little kitchen and eat bread and cheese? Not the people Vera wanted to associate with. Two years went by before both the checks and the phone calls became rarer and then stopped for good. Sonia was the only witness to her mother’s fury and tears.

Ballet school became her escape. Twice a week, she looked forward to getting into her leotard and soft ballet slippers to fol- low the instructions of Irina Vladimirovna, who presided over the class of nine little girls and three boys like a benevolent queen bestowing special gifts on her subjects. Rail thin, with heavy blonde braids piled in a chignon on the top of her head, manicured hands in constant motion, Vladimirovna struck poses to demonstrate a port de bras or tilt of the head, addressing her students with their full names, using the traditional patronymic, which Sonia thought was very classy. Though she knew nothing about her teacher’s past, the little girl imagined young Irina floating across a stage into her partner’s arms, being lifted skyward in gravity-defying poses, like she had seen ballerinas do on TV. To please Vladimirovna, Sonia applied herself to every step, every exercise, every rule. She even enjoyed the commotion in the studio antechamber where the young dancers changed clothes, shoved each other playfully, and giggled, while their parents—usually mothers—urged them to get on with it, put their shoes on, button their coats, put their gloves on, etc. On the way home, Vera would often say, “You are good. You have the secret ingredient. You’ll be a ballerina.”

It was a sad day, indeed, when she had to say goodbye to her adored Irina Vladimirovna, to start classes at the state ballet school “for the good of your career,” as Vera put it. There were scores of young people filling the various studios, pushy, loud youngsters who paid her zero attention, as well as severe looking teachers, none of whom sported big blonde braids coiled in a lovely chignon, nor red nails, nor the aura of romance that her former teacher had. For three long years, Sonia submitted herself to the demands of her training, always striving to pay attention, take correction gracefully, attend all classes, including piano and solfège, which she disliked. And it paid off. When Vera finally took her to Moscow to audition for the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, she was accepted, one of only 55 new students enrolled that year. They were told that fewer than 25 would actually survive to graduate. The pressure was on like never before. Both intimidated and exhilarated by her new surroundings, Sonia soldiered on. Ballet was her life. What else could she do?

Now she is driving down some of the same streets she’s been traveling on for years. She just had the greatest night of her life as a dancer yet she is already slipping into the now familiar sense of confused suspense she has been living in since her return. Upon hearing the front door open, Vera, who sleeps on the couch since she ceded the bedroom to her daughter, lifts her head a bit.

“Did he call?” Sonia asks in a low voice.

“No, honey, no one called.” After some hesitation, she adds, “You know, maybe they are blocking his calls. They don’t want you to have contact with him.”

“Yes, maybe. Goodnight Mama.” In bed, spent like a deflated doll, she stares at the fragmented shadows on the ceiling, seeing herself dancing the Lilac Fairy with Yuri as her partner.



The first time he mentioned it, it was in a lighthearted manner, as if it were a joke. Tired after yet another performance, the two of them were drinking champagne in the hotel bar. She laughed easily and drank with pleasure. Champagne always made her feel lightheaded, a state of body and mind that she found most enjoyable. Extending a leg under the table, Sonia poked him in the thigh and Yuri pretended that it hurt.

“What would your adoring fans in Moscow do without you?” she teased.

“I will have other, richer fans,” he retorted.

“Aha, you are in it for the money! Now the truth comes out!”

“What’s wrong with money? Wouldn’t you like to live in a mansion on the coast of sunny California? I’ll feed you caviar and champagne every night.” And it went on like that, silly words made sillier by too much champagne.

Sonia felt warm, safe, happy. Eventually, Yuri lifted her off the chair with his strong arms forged into muscular steel by years of lifting his stage partners. “You are tipsy, my dear. Time for bed,” he said.

By the third time the subject of seeking asylum in the U.S. came up, the mood was very different. He was trying to convince her. Yes, money was part of it, he conceded, but think about all the new contemporary choreography they would get to explore, Balanchine, John Cranko, Jiri Kylian. Maybe they could start their own company someday. “Please Sonia, this is our chance, this is our chance!” Then, to her relief, he stopped talking about it. So she was surprised, when on their last night in New York, he pulled her into the bathroom, closed the door, and let the shower run continuously.

“What are you doing, creating a sauna?” she asked, bewildered. Yuri started speaking in a low voice, very close to her face. “We have to make a decision. I have already contacted U.S. authorities. Boris is helping. Look, our future depends on this. We’ll be celebrities. We’ll get all the roles. We can do whatever we want!”

“You are out of your mind,” she said, while unease enveloped her like the steam from the hot shower. “Turn that shower off, I am getting drenched.”

Though frightened for the first time, a part of her mind was telling her that he wouldn’t take such a step without her. She must resist this crazy scheme of his. What did they really know about America? Maybe no one would hire them. Maybe no one would hire her! Two sorry exiles with no family, friends, or country. She wanted to express these thoughts but Yuri grabbed her upper arms to shake her. “Sonia, please….” He stared at her, still holding her firmly, yet words momentarily failed him.

There was a knock on the door of the room which they heard over the noise of the running water. Suddenly he stood still, his face an odd mask of mixed emotions.

“They know we are here. We must open the door,” she whispered. He turned off the shower to listen. Another louder knock. “Pretend to be taking a shower, I’ll see who it is,” he said.

“Hey, how are you two doing?” It was Leon, the company manager, brandishing a bottle of whiskey. “Want a taste?”

“Uh… I don’t think so. We are kind of pooped. We’ll just stay in here tonight.” But Leon was already in the room, laughing while setting the bottle down in preparation for filling the glasses he had also brought along. Yuri sipped while Leon downed his drink, smacking his lips, still jovial and friendly. There was a party going on in the artistic director’s suite, said Leon. Yuri and Sonia must come. Sonia, who had joined them wrapped in a fluffy bathrobe, yawned and shook her head. “No way, I am going to sleep,” she stated firmly, tightening the robe’s belt. Leon slapped Yuri on the back. “Let her sleep. You must come. The ambassador is coming, too. He wants to be introduced to the stars. Come on Yuri, let’s go!” He grabbed the bottle he had brought and began propelling the taller man toward the door. Yuri looked back at Sonia. “Let me say goodnight to my wife,” he said, then quickly moved toward her to plant a kiss on her lips. He whispered something Sonia didn’t get and then he was gone. She heard them talking loudly in the hallway for a while until the elevator came to whisk them to the artistic director’s floor. That was the last time she saw her husband.

Early the following morning, Sonia was awakened by a series of frantic knocks. It was Leon again, but this time there was no whiskey or laughter, and he was accompanied by another man who did not introduce himself.

“Where’s Yuri?” barked Leon.

“He went to the party with you last night,” she responded sheepishly, still not fully awake.

“Don’t play games. Where is he?”

When the ballerina continued to stand there with a strange expression on her face, Leon started opening the closets, ordering her to start packing. “The airport bus will be leaving in 30 minutes,” he shouted. “I’ll help you pack.” All her protestations that she needed some privacy, needed to take a shower, etc., fell on deaf ears. Hers and Yuri’s things were piled haphazardly into bags, including every piece of paper in the room, her jewelry, and even toiletries. By the time they got downstairs to board the bus, other company members were gathering in the lobby, quietly greeting each other, some suffering from a hangover. The man who came with Leon propelled Sonia straight across the lobby and into the waiting bus where she was the first to board. “What is going on?” she asked timidly, worried that she already knew the answer. The man surprised her by answering in a gentle voice: “Your husband has defected to the United States. I am sorry, Comrade Zorina.” He didn’t ask her if she knew about Yuri’s intentions, but she volunteered: “I pleaded with him not to do it,” she said, oddly comforted by this man’s courtesy and soft voice. Tears filled her eyes.

For three days, American authorities refused to let the Aeroflot flight leave, repeatedly insisting on interviewing Ms. Zorina to make sure that she was leaving U.S. soil voluntarily. Her husband was worried. Her husband wanted her with him. Her husband was afraid that she had been coerced, they said. On and on, they went in circles. “I am too Russian to live in America,” she told them. “I would be a fish out of water. My home is in Moscow. I love my country.” On the fourth day, they let her go.


Choreographing dance routines for talented young ice skaters is her new career now. It’s fun. Today, her students are Alex and Marina, a brother and sister whose mother was an Olympic skater. They are eager to please their ballet teacher, just as she once was with Irina Vladimirovna. Odd how she never inquired about Irina in all these years. Forever living in her mind as the elegant, glamorous teacher of her childhood, Irina was always there somehow, always the same, immortal. The sudden realization that Vladimirovna might not be alive anymore unsettles her. How old was Irina back then? Sonia has no idea.

“Miss Zorina, Miss Zorina, look!” calls Marina who is right now airborne on her brother’s shoulders. Only thirteen, the girl is totally enamored of skating—breathes, dreams, and lives figure skating, imagining herself already as a gold medalist maybe five years from now. She is also thrilled to have a former Bolshoi ballerina as a teacher/choreographer.

Less than two years after her triumphant return home following Yuri’s defection, at age 37, Sonia had retired from active performing with the polite encouragement of the artistic director who offered her a job as a repetiteur. No more Lilac Fairy for her, no more foreign tours, no cameras clicking late at night at the stage door. Nearly every day during those two years, she awoke every morning hoping for a phone call or a letter from America. When the waiting became unbearable one day, she grabbed the phone to call, only to realize that she had no idea which number to use. And she sure wasn’t about to ask anyone at the Bolshoi. Months into her waiting, Sonia walked past the American embassy in Moscow one day, trying to imagine herself going in, asking for assistance in locating the man who was still her lawful husband. But the courage failed her. The consequences might be awful. The authorities might accuse her of colluding with the Americans in some nefarious affair. Yet the embassy became a kind of anchor for her soul. After that first time, she returned again and again, always making sure to walk on the opposite side of the street, lingering just a bit while contemplating going in to ask for help. She never did. So the waiting continued, as well as dreams in which she was always running toward a plane or away from it, her destination unclear, her feet shod in ballet slippers. When divorce papers finally arrived, three years of waiting came to an end. No more walks by the American embassy. Vera said, “You are still young and pretty….” The rest was unspoken but clear.

“Should I lift Marina on my left shoulder and then grab her arm on the other side?” red-cheeked Alex is asking, looking at her with big bright eyes. He lowers his younger sister down to the ice, and she proceeds to skate across the rink, just enjoying the gliding movement and the speed that propels her forward. When, after a while, she skates back to where her brother and Sonia are, the girl is ready for the next round, reaching her arm toward her brother and assuming a pose. It’s a sparklingly sunny day and there are other skaters training nearby. Young voices seem to bounce off the ice, crisp and light, crisscrossing each other in the air. Sonia believes Alex and Marina are the best of the bunch, and she is determined to help them reach their goals.

“OK, let’s try the same configuration again!” she says, her own voice sounding younger and crisper. When her phone rings, she motions toward the kids to indicate they should go ahead, and she picks up her cell. It’s a friend from her Bolshoi days, whom she rarely sees these days.

“I have some news…, not good news,” says Lara. “I wasn’t sure whether I should call but I think you should know.”

“What is it?” asks Sonia with her light crispy voice. Lara is silent for a while.

“It’s news about Yuri,” she finally replies.

“Oh! Has he seduced a movie star or become artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, or something?” Sonia’s voice is mocking.

“Uh…, no, nothing like that.” Lara pauses again, longer than before. “He’s dead. He was found alone in his apartment in New York. Apparently, he had become an alcoholic and did drugs, too. I can’t believe it, our handsome, talented Yuri.” Lara’s voice clouds with emotion.

“Our Yuri,” mumbles Sonia, then thanks Lara and hangs up. For a moment, she is acutely aware of skates screeching on the ice. What a poignant sound, she notes. She hasn’t thought of it in years, but now her thoughts fly back to the hotel room in New York and the message whispered in her ear years ago. Funny how she had always expected to decipher it one day.

Alex and Marina are staring at her.

“OK kids! Let’s get back to work. We need to practice that last combination. Alex, lean further into Marina as you are getting ready, then push her forward in a slow, legato move and bring her back toward you before spinning her in a pirouette. No jerky moves. Don’t rush it. It should be a smooth, gliding motion. It takes a little practice.” She watches patiently with a smile on her face, and then applauds their still shaky try, and the next, and the next.


From the August 2017 issue



James R. Adair

Death quietly observed the scene for a moment with neither joy nor regret, though perhaps with a bit of satisfaction in a job well done. Her subject had retired from his job as a sheet metal worker only six weeks earlier, and he had planned to use some of his savings to buy an RV and travel the forty-eight contiguous states for the next several years, finally settling down to spend his waning years putting together model cars—his hobby for almost sixty years—and sitting on his porch swing in the evening breeze, sipping ice tea or maybe a beer, and playing with his grandchildren when they came to visit. Death, of course, knew nothing of these plans, and even if she had known, she wouldn’t have altered her course of action. A touch of her invisible hand had left the man sprawling on the floor of his workshop, a can of red paint turned on its side, spilling its viscous, sticky contents onto the concrete alongside the similarly sticky, viscous liquid that dripped slowly from his forehead, which had grazed the corner of his workbench on its way to the ground. Though she was neither omniscient nor omnipresent, Death was prescient, and she knew that his wife would find the body when she returned from the grocery store in an hour or so.

There being no rest for the weary, and Death did sometimes feel weary, she felt in the pocket of her robe for a small, crimson, velvet sack, and finding it, she pulled out what a casual observer would have assumed to be a rather large coin, about the size of a U.S. dollar coin, not a Sacajawea or president’s dollar coin, but an Eisenhower dollar, though with the heft of a 2-Euro piece. On this coin was inscribed the name and address of her next client, one Giacomo Corsini, a resident of Florence. Upon reading the location, Death’s heart, had she had one, would have begun to beat a little faster. She thought back with what can only be described as a twinge of nostalgia—perhaps even wistfulness—about one of the earliest clients that she could remember (was he in fact the first?—certainly the first of any importance, it was hard to recall exactly), Giovanni de’ Medici, founder of the Medici Bank and the richest Florentine of his day. Placing the coin back in the sack, she reflected on the fact that her assignments had not brought her back to Florence for almost four hundred years, at which time she had had a hand in the dispatch of more than a quarter of a million people in the region over a period of two years.

Of course, she had had help. Technically speaking, she wasn’t really Death: she was Death377, and on the northern Italian case, she had worked with seven colleagues, Death350, Death984, Death202, Death777, Death519, Death966, and Death1141. She remembered thinking that the assignment might have been Death1141’s first gig, though she didn’t know why that was her impression. She and her comrades always worked at a steady pace: one client every half hour, twenty-four hours a day, every day of every year, no vacations or holidays. No wonder she felt drained at times! She rarely thought of such matters, but lately, she had noticed in a moment of self-reflection, the magnitude of her efforts over the centuries was more frequently on her mind. She did a quick calculation (she, like all Deaths, was quantitatively proficient), and she estimated that she personally had transitioned more than ten million people into the next plane of existence.

She felt no remorse about this carnage, nor about her role in it; it was simply a fact. Was she even capable of feeling? In earlier times she hadn’t thought so, and for centuries she hadn’t had any experiences that she would have identified as emotions, but she had noticed that intermittently over the past two or three decades she would occasionally have something that approached a feeling. The first time was twenty-eight years earlier, when her client was a young boy in Zimbabwe who suffered from HIV-AIDS. She didn’t feel anything for her client—she never did—but she did feel something. Was it a mild annoyance? Melancholy? Whatever it was, the feeling, tiny as it was, had startled her, yet another feeling. After that, it was seven years before she had another similar experience, this time as she led an elderly rape victim into the great void. This circumstance had recurred maybe half a dozen additional times since then. And now this feeling of wistfulness, if that’s what it was.

She sat down on an empty bench at the end of the Piazza Santa Croce, diagonally across the piazza from the statue of Dante, a short distance north of the place where the Via dei Benci turns into the Ponte alle Grazie and crosses the Arno. It was evening, and many people were out for strolls in the cool breeze. Ten minutes until her appointment. As she gazed at Dante, she pondered death, not herself or others like her, but the cessation of human life. She had no idea whose client Dante had been, and in fact his transition had occurred somewhat before her commission, an incident which she remembered only very vaguely—strange, because she could recall all of her subsequent assignments with great clarity. Where did her clients go after their transformation had been effected? It was not something she had considered before. Were they reborn as new individuals somewhere else in the world? Did they move on to the next phase of life, whatever that was? Perhaps they went to a parallel plane of being, to remain there forever. Or maybe their existence as the person they had developed into over thirty, fifty, or eighty years just halted abruptly. It was an interesting thought, and death felt herself mildly amused by her interest in the matter.

She further considered the fact that fewer of her recent clients were children. They had made up the bulk of her clientele for the first several centuries, in fact into the early twentieth century, but something had changed, advances in medical practice or technology, she surmised, though she didn’t really know (or care). The little boy in Zimbabwe had become the exception rather than the rule, not in southern Africa necessarily, but averaged out among all her clients. Maybe that was what had evoked her feelings on that hot summer afternoon twenty-eight years earlier.

Next she mused over the phenomenon of human fame. Dante had lived and died seven centuries earlier, yet he was still remembered, and even discussed, in the present day. One of her recent clients had been a Dante scholar at an Australian university, a woman who had spent a large part of her life reading and teaching the Commedia, the Vita Nuova, and the Convivio. And she wasn’t the only person who remembered Dante. As she had waited in the personal library of another fairly recent client, Death had noted that his shelves contained no less than four copies of the Commedia, in both Italian and French. Yes, Dante had achieved lasting fame, for some reason, but no one recalled the little Zimbabwean boy, not a single person. Only a few family members still evoked the name of the elderly rape victim from twenty-one years ago, plus the few who walked past her headstone in the cemetery and glanced at the inscription. The fact that some people were famous and others were not made no sense to Death, so she simply let it drop. It was time.

As she looked up, she saw a man wearing a scarlet beret and carrying a cane walking briskly in her direction. The cane was apparently for show, thought Death, or was perhaps an affectation. He neared the bench where Death sat, paused, and seated himself next to her.

“Buona sera,” he said to her.

This was an extremely unusual situation, Death thought to herself. In fact, it was unprecedented. No one had ever noticed her before, and she had assumed that she was invisible to humans. No matter, she would accomplish her task and move on to her next client. “Buona sera,” she replied.

“My name is Giacomo Corsini,” the man said. “What is yours?”

Death knew it wouldn’t be prudent to give her real name, so she quickly made one up. “Isabella della Scala.”

“It’s a pleasant evening, isn’t it? It’s nice to relax and watch the people go by.”

“Yes it is,” Death answered, considering this strange turn of events and wondering the appropriate etiquette for striking someone dead in the middle of a conversation. “I always enjoy spending time in Florence.”

“Oh, you’re not Florentine? I assumed from your accent that you were.”

Again inventing rapidly, she lied, “No, I’m originally from Verona, but I’ve traveled quite a bit and haven’t been home in recent years.” That much was certainly true.

“Oh, one of our traditional rivals,” Corsini said, smiling. “I hope you don’t still hold a grudge for that little incident back in the fourteenth century!”

“No, no,” Death replied, returning the smile. She had taken advantage of the banal banter to formulate a plan for touching her current client, then moving on to her next. She had never been late on an assignment before, and she was not going to let this anomalous situation deter her. “I’m afraid I must go now,” Death said, rising to her feet. “I have an appointment.”

“It’s been a pleasure to meet you,” replied Corsini, now also standing.

Death extended her hand to him and noted with satisfaction that he was likewise extending his. She was already thinking about moving on to her next assignment when their hands met and Corsini gently raised her hand to his lips and kissed it. Their eyes met, and Death experienced one final emotion, not mild or subdued like her previous ones, but powerful and unmistakable: surprise.

The man carefully lowered his client to the bench, allowing her body to slump ever so slightly to one side. He removed her robe and donned it himself. Reaching into the pocket, he removed the velvet sack with his right hand. In his left hand he held a coin that was inscribed, “Isabella della Scala, Firenze, Italia.” The new Death377 dropped the coin in the sack, from which it promptly disappeared and was replaced by a new one. He put his hand in the bag, removed the coin and read its inscription, and prepared for his appointment with a certain Jin Guangxu in Qufu, China. Already the memory of this, his first assignment, was rapidly fading. He wondered fleetingly if it would always be like this.


From the November 2017 issue


Enoch West

Bob Carnes

Enoch West was a fucker and a fighter and a wild bull rider, a true master of manly pursuits. Well, he wasn’t really a bull rider but it was generally thought that he could have been. Even bull riders need the wherewithal and, since his parents were working people, at the age when others started riding bulls, Enoch was chronically short of wherewithal. Actually, the fucking part is not certain either. The list of his conquests was long, but he was the author of it, and nobody could ever stir up a lot of corroboration. Even so, people generally considered it prudent to believe the list but not hasten to judgment of the ladies on it.

Nobody doubted that Enoch was a fighter. His credentials in that department had been established before kindergarten in the empty lots and playgrounds of Mavis, the little South Texas town where he grew up. Mavis is the only populated area in Piper County, a large county of ranches, cattle, and oil and gas wells situated about three hours’ drive from Corpus Christi and a day and a half’s walk from the Mexican border. I first started hearing Enoch West stories when I moved to Mavis during the oil and gas boom of the seventies. I was working for one of the seven or so drilling contractors based there. Several of the friends I made in Mavis had grown up with Enoch, and one of them had played football with him in high school. He said that Enoch wasn’t especially big or strong, but he was very tough and could not be made to give up. He also just purely loved to fight. As soon as the drinking would start, so would the fighting, and if there weren’t any enemies around Enoch would have at his friends. My friend said that he had beaten Enoch up a couple of times but finally let him win one night just to get some peace.

When I was there, Enoch lived outside of town and did some- thing for a living that didn’t require him to come in very often. He hadn’t always been a hermit, though, and the story that intrigued me the most took place during his more gregarious past. I have said that he was master of manly pursuits, and in South Texas, there is no manlier pursuit than deer hunting. Enoch was a deer hunter, but a deer hunter of a special kind. He was able to stalk whitetail. I’ve only heard of two people who were up to it, and the other one was my uncle, Bert Wright. Enoch was also a poacher. Most poachers do their work from the roadside. They refer to the highways in South Texas as the “long hunting lease.” Those guys aren’t generally well regarded, but Enoch was a special kind of poacher. He confined his activities to ranches that put up high game fences and sold their trophy bucks to rich people from the East (actually they didn’t really exclude rich Westerners). Since the owners of those places were rarely from the area, they were widely considered fair game.

The place that Enoch picked on the most was right there in Piper County. It was an ancestral ranch that had fallen into the hands of an evil oil promoter in the Sixties and, in terms of area, almost was Piper County. It was called the Piper County Ranch Company, or PCRC. The evil owner was a little guy with a Napoleon complex who was greatly reviled for running roughshod over the locals. He was also very proud of the horns on his place and very vocal about what he would do to anyone guilty of shooting one of his deer for under the minimum $5,000. This all went toward creating of Enoch West a modern-day Robin Hood who made, and ate, hamburger from what would have been prize-winning bucks. All the people who told me the story agreed that if Enoch had just taken the deer and kept his mouth shut, the evil promoter would probably have left well enough alone. But keeping his mouth shut wasn’t Enoch’s style. Enoch liked to brag about it, and he especially liked to brag about it after he had been drinking. Many’s the night that saw a procession of vehicles led by Enoch’s pickup wending its way from one of the local bars to Enoch’s house. Once there Enoch would throw up the garage doors and stand in pride while people oohed and ahhed over the collection of trophy heads covering the walls. “Every single one from the PCRC,” he would intone, and all present would marvel.

Just as in a fairy tale, it didn’t take long for the evil promoter to catch wind of what was going on. Enoch would have loved for the evil promoter to, say, come to town and brace him personally. Everyone knew that wasn’t going to happen. Evil promoters are notoriously reluctant to engage in their own bracing. The ragtag collection of ranch hands he had who would reportedly shoot you on sight on their side of the fence, or close on the other side, weren’t likely to show up either. Even if there had been scrappers of Enoch’s stripe among them, none of them were prepared to take on the whole town. For a time there was a Mexican standoff, with Enoch twisting the evil promoter’s nose and laughing about it. The stage was set.

One of the remarkable things about this story when I heard it around town was the similarity among versions. Just about all of them went like this: It was early Saturday afternoon in the big barroom/dancehall on the east side of Mavis. Enoch was there alone drinking a beer. He was at the back of the room with his back to the door (unlikely, given Enoch’s hobbies). Unnoticed by Enoch, a guy five feet eight inches tall, about 145, 150, in a clean white t-shirt, fatigue pants, shiny paratrooper boots with a baseball cap on, walks up to the bar and asks, “Do you know where I can find Enoch West?”

Looking down and drying a glass, like they do in the movies, the bartender says, “There he sits, the only one in the bar.”

The guy walks over to Enoch’s table and, when Enoch notices him, says, “Are you Enoch West?”

Enoch says, “I am.” Enoch is having to look up but not too far, since the guy’s eyes aren’t that far from the floor to begin with.

The guy says, “Do you want to take your ass-whipping here or do you want to go outside?” Incredulous, Enoch stands up, trying to think of a snappy comeback. The next thing anybody knows, Enoch is unconscious, face down on the floor. The guy pours the rest of Enoch’s beer on his head and waits for him to regain consciousness. When he does, the guy lifts his head up by the hair and places an army issue 45 automatic, produced from one of the voluminous pockets of the fatigue pants, at Enoch’s temple and says, “If I ever hear of you hunting on the PCRC again, I’ll come back and kill your ass!”

The story always ended with the teller saying, “But you know Enoch. He’s still poaching out there like always.”

It was an amusing story and always went well with a beer or, later in the evening, a shot of bourbon. A couple of years after I first heard the story I had the opportunity to meet the main character, Enoch West, himself. He was somewhat as described, if a little more subdued than expected. I don’t remember the business that took me out there, but I was meeting him at his house. When the business was finished I couldn’t resist asking him about the story.

He chuckled and said, “Yeah. It’s true. I was there with Bean.” That’s the first I’d heard of another participant. Bean was a guy known around Mavis and was apparently one of Enoch’s frequent companions. “We were sitting at a table and drinking and talking. First thing I know this guy is standing at the corner of the table between me and Bean. He said something but I couldn’t make any sense out of what he said. I said, “What did you say?” He said, “Do you want to take your ass-whipping here or do you want to go outside?” I’m already standing up but the sum’itch hits me four times before I could get full up. Those four blows are all I remember. He was that fast. I’ve never seen anybody move like that. Next thing I know he’s got me by the hair of the head and got my neck arched back and that fucking gun to my head. He says, “If I ever hear of you hunting on the PCRC again I’ll kill you.” I’m thinking Bean is about to jump him, but he lets my head drop and walks off. I look at the other side of the table and Bean is stretched out on the floor over there. Sometime between knocking me out and putting the gun to my head he polished ol’ Bean off. And that was pretty much it.” He said it with a rueful little smile.

I said, “Enoch, whenever I’ve heard the story the guy telling it always says you’re still hunting on the PCRC.”

“Bob,” Enoch said, looking into my eyes so I could see he was serious, “I don’t even hunt in the adjoining counties.”


From the November 2019 issue


Repurpose Me Elmo

Lisa L. Lynn

The days are but ephemeral, nights eternal. The only recompense—my bulbous eyes never blink, and darkness soothes. Is this the final purpose? If so, it is one that redefines the word.

I muse upon my many purposes, having only time now, wending back to that first assignment. Being wrangled in plastic ties in a showcase box and then summarily shoved into another bright box wrapped in foil by harried maternal hands. Placed under a fir tree and sensing like live sparks the anticipation of the child, my first human. The muttering outside the tissue rumple was still unmistakable—“I hate the fucking holidays.” I wasn’t yet jaded, so I didn’t comprehend this perception. Then there was the moment of the unveiling, being lifted high in the hands of the child, a petite thing with bronze eyes and a silvery laugh.

I was mauled a bit before being peremptorily dropped, as other packages held sway. Still later, I was pushed around in a baby stroller and cooed to, next to a pink elephant and something that looked like a cross between a ferret and a chinchilla, never did figure that one out. Mainly I just got thrown onto a rainbow heap of plush toys on the bed and was shoved about hither and yon for some time until many of us were organized onto a chair in the corner by those familiar taut maternal hands.

The waiting around was numbing. All the other toys and plushies that piled into the rocking chair and onto the bed made for a silent confusion in the chaos. Eventually we were replaced by a small gadget almost no bigger than a slender smooth tween hand. The holidays now filled me with dread. What other pieces of clutter would show up to add to the madness?

There was some solace. During those dark days I would hear the refrain, from the same maternal presence who had unthinkingly wrapped me long ago, “…fucking holidays.” Having no voice, I found it satisfying to hear this out loud. I became more attracted to the darkness, the days that evaporated before full light came into being. And the nights, the long nights that matched my lack of purpose, stillness, silence. Those nights contrasted with the emptiness somehow, the black filled with nothing, the absence an almost soothing presence.


Enough. Let’s move on.


Then came another box, amidst what I now consider, if not friends, then a cohort of plushness. There was some time in there, but what have I if not time in the end? I am not the most biodegradable little unit on the planet, of this I am sure. So how long in that tumble of velvet until the light returns? My second purpose was about to arrive. Well-meaning holiday cynics do not just toss things out. I was sad to hear her clacking away down the hall, knowing full well that another box of junk dropped off was one less she needed to deal with. The sweet surprise came in parting when the clerk who took us uttered thanks and a jovial “Happy Holidays!” I could hear, in addition to her receding heels, that one sure phrase, “I hate the fucking holidays.” Somehow some joy sprang into my polyester heart.

The second gig was chaotic. I was now part of an anarchic sprawling foster family who was given the jettisoned detritus. Pandemonium held sway during those dark days. Sugar was queen, and donated toys were all the little fools. I was meant for a toddler, a sticky boy with black curls and haunting green eyes with a dark band encircling the irises. In short order, he languidly dropped me onto the floor. His sole pursuit apparently was the search of anything laden with frosting. It wasn’t long before my purpose came into view as the family mutt appropriated me to its maw, agape with truly terrifying yellow fangs. The most it ever did, however, after this horrific moment was a sloshy gnawing that astonishingly did not do me as much damage as anticipated.

Somewhere in the rhythmic gnashing, between two mop-like paws, my nose came undone and evanesced down the gullet of this shaggy hound. I had to respect him. He quite enjoyed me. Sometime the next day, my nose passed back to the earth, no longer orange and puffy, just another slimy lump in the dense dun morass. Part of me was delighted that my so-called nasal poof was of no stress to the mongrel. Had I been made of ribbon or maybe pantyhose, I would have felt some remorse. He was just that honest.

Why these feelings about a mere mutt? I can easily say that even the inanimate care to be valued. Or at least useful. I barely remember the candy-coated toddler, the cocoa skin, the eyes, the hydrogenated icing in his hair. That will have to be enough. I can certainly remember the canine whose slobber became a permanent addition to my hairstyle, my all-over fur-matting consequence. We spent some time together. When he wandered away, I was then master of his domain, a corner behind a couch rubbled with dust, dirt, dog hair, candy wrappers, and the ubiquitous shadows.


Enough. Let’s move on.


Next step was the trash, after another successful cleaning event. Repurposed toys in the end are just recycled junk from China. The nadir of the dumpster I initially thought to be my permanent undoing. Decomposing there would have been lonely sport amongst the retired party dross (primarily red Solo cups), more than a fair share of shitty diapers, and the odd retired vacuum. I was squeezed between some other toys, all angular plastic, and a bunch of coloring books that had gotten soiled by an impromptu, if not exactly accidental, soda pop explosion. There were also sequins, unidentifiable fluff, and shards of glass. The latter were bemoaning their fate and singing sharply and for all to hear of having been some brand-name crystal fanciness at one point. I discerned the leg of a plush animal (monkey? kangaroo?) somewhere in the heap, but no intact version of itself for my company.

The moment I saw him was a few beats after I could discern with my once-orange nose, now missing, that his fragrance was more putrid than his appearance. Ratfink was decomposing himself, his clothing, his skin, the myelin sheaths of his brain. As he plucked through the rot, I couldn’t help but stand out, being on top somehow in the entire shenanigan of mess. And that is where my third purpose began. He scored some pizza crusts along with a few swigs of sour beer, some of those sips complete with cigarette ash, even butts. He kept the cans but not the red cups. Oh, and me.

In short order, I became as fetid and foul as him. We wallowed in it together. I could tell by the growing length of the nights, particularly as Ratfink had no electricity in his dwelling, that we were in the dark stretch once again. He and I were one with the cold, outside of his layers of rags and patches.

I knew his name because it was in all of his mantras: “Ratfink you bad boy;” “Ratfink you ratty child;” “Ratfink you fucking filthy fink.” That was basically the extent of his vocabulary, and most of the time it didn’t come via the sentence, just words: “bad Ratfink;” “child rat;” “dirty bad” often in couplets. His better days were more grammatically complete I believe.

This third purpose was the most fulfilling. I was needed, and I knew it. Ratfink and I went everywhere together. He had a route. The best part was living in the woods between a rail yard and a public golf course. Ratfink was quite the walker, strong sturdy legs and the grip of a lion, into which I was closely clenched most of the day and those long nights. He called me “Stanley,” which wasn’t such a bad name in my opinion. He talked with me a great deal. “Stanley you are my friend.” “Don’t be a ratfink Stanley, or I will kill you.” That kind of thing. He did punch me a bit and once even strangled me. I didn’t really mind, as it did seem to be a part of the larger purpose of allowing for Ratfink’s random expression on this third and last assignment.

The woods setting was unique for an inanimate entity of my station. The dwelling in which Ratfink lived was mainly composed of decaying plywood leaning against itself. It had a blue tarpaulin on which Ratfink and I slept, always together, me mashed in with his stinking rags. I found this mightily preferable to rotting upon a heap of slithering baby shit, fermenting foodstuffs, braggadocious shards, and molecules whose half-lives would outlive the planet itself, the latter from things like me in fact.

The purpose, though meaningful, was brief. That longest night was also cold, beyond what the flesh can manage I now gather. And Ratfink, though stalwart, went still and solid. He smelled sweet and strange that last night, before he went to odious beyond his prior living noxiousness. That came only after a long thaw and longer days. And even that was a long time ago now.

And now here I am again with the night, with the darkness, the silence and the cold. The light comes in peculiar ways, the cycling moon, so predictable, the winking stars, and the fall of snow on my face, my repeated burials by leaf, by snow, the heaviness mounting. I take such pleasure in the moss. Its organic nature and ever greenness is a living part of me that melds with and transcends my own insentience.

Humans everywhere are f-bombing the holidays, competing to go broke the fastest, piling up plastic and polyester. Not I. I have no purpose but to fade, to fragment, to meld with the elements around me. And from there, everything looks unblinkingly, darkly, grand.


From the May 2021 issue


The Last Ride of Amarillo Slim

Matthew Chabe

I was drinking in this shitty quán nhậu near Mỹ Khê Beach with my friend, Ethan, when I told him about Mr. Phuc. I was trying to be a travel writer then—doing stories about elephant rides, rickety trains, things like that. My plan—my original plan—was to move on to Saigon and then go over to Cambodia for a while. But I met a girl, and the next thing I knew four months had passed and here I was. Still in Danang.

Anyway, Ethan and I were crouched on those little plastic chairs that the quán nhậus have, trying to maintain as much self- respect as we could with our knees bent up to our chests. It was the beginning of summer in central Vietnam, and the heat had spiked into the triple digits. The U.S. had just invaded Iraq. I told Ethan he was lucky New Zealand didn’t have the draft. He didn’t really care what happened in the States, he said: couldn’t be arsed. Five beers into it, I finally steered the conversation to Mr. Phuc.

I had met Mr. Phuc that morning on my way to the market. He had zipped up beside me on his beat-up Honda Dream; when he offered me a ride for a few thousand dong, I hopped on. Along the way he told me about how he was trying to learn English. When I got off the bike, he asked me if I would meet him at the park the next day for conversation and a coffee. I agreed. What the hell.

“Yeah,” Ethan said, “the locals are really friendly like that.” He drained the beer from his can and dropped it on the concrete floor. “When I first got ‘ere, this local took me to his place for dinner. Told me his sister was a nurse, about to move to New Zealand. Took me on a tiki tour way out in the friggin’ country, mate. Met the whole family. Filled me full of rice wine. High-test shite. You ’ad it?”

I admitted that I hadn’t.

“Oh mate, you gotta. Anyway, I started getting suspicious when they told me about their grandmother. Real sick, they said. Had to go to the hospital but didn’t have any money, OK? So I gave ’em ten dollars.” In the street a motorbike whisked by, driven by a woman in a rice hat. Two large cages, pregnant with cackling black roosters, hung from the rear of the bike. “I know it was scam, if that’s what yer thinkin’,” Ethan continued. “Figured I got a good meal out of it. Rice wine. Hoo.” He raised his hand and motioned to the old woman at the back of the bar. “Ơi!” he yelled. “Hai bia nữa!” The woman brought two warm beers and glasses of ice.

“I wonder if Mr. Phuc’s grandmother is sick, too?” I said. I cracked my can and filled my glass. A thick head spilled over the lip.

“Ha!” Ethan barked. “What’s the worst that can ’appen?”


I woke up the next day with a mild hangover and met Mr. Phuc in the park near my homestay. I figured we’d just go around the corner to a coffee shop, but Mr. Phuc had other plans. He wanted to treat me to a meal, he said, and introduce me to his family. I didn’t really want to go to this guy’s house, but I also didn’t want to be rude, so I went along. Maybe I’d even get a story out of it.

It took about 40 minutes to reach Mr. Phuc’s house on the other side of the Han River. It was a simple two-story concrete structure, typical of the houses in the countryside. In the front room, a man sat on a threadbare couch watching a rerun of “Friends.” When he saw us enter, he stood and turned the TV off. He was dressed in a white button-up shirt and black pants—the classic salaryman uniform. Mr. Phuc introduced him as his brother, Tinh.

Tinh turned out to have excellent English. We chatted for a while about why I was in Danang, whether I was an English teacher, things like that. He revealed that he worked as a card dealer in a casino in Ha Long. I knew that gambling was illegal for Vietnamese residents, but that some casinos had been built to attract the Chinese and Korean tourists that went to Ha Long Bay, a popular vacation spot up north. He worked half the year there, he said; the rest of the time, he was a dealer in the VIP room of some club here in Danang.

“Sometimes the groups, they hire their own dealer. They are very rich.” He winked and jabbed his thumbs into his chest. “With cards, I am very lucky. They like to hire me.” He went on to tell me about how his rich clients gave him tips when they won. I half-listened; I wasn’t really into cards. Mostly, I wondered when the grandmother would come up.

From behind Tinh, Mr. Phuc’s wife emerged from the kitch- en. She filled the table with plates laden with rice, vegetables, stewed pork, and spring rolls. We sat down to eat, and although Mr. Phuc’s wife spoke little English, the conversation was good. I forgot all about Tinh’s cards until the end of the meal, when he brought it up again. Two nights ago, he told me, a businessman from Hanoi had won the equivalent of twenty-thousand U.S. dollars. I knew that was a ton of money in Vietnam. I thought about the twenty bucks I had in my own pocket and how that would probably last me the whole week.

Tinh asked me if I knew how to play Hanoi Blackjack. I told him that I didn’t.

“After dinner, I’ll teach it to you,” he said. I replied that I’d like to learn someday, but that I wasn’t interested in gambling. “No, no,” he said. “No worry. I’ll just show you how to play.”


Once the plates had been cleared from the table, Tinh broke out the cards. Like a careful teacher, Tinh explained the rules and walked me though a couple of hands. As he did, Mr. Phuc broke out the rice wine and poured shots for each of us. I could stand to stick around a little while, I thought.

Tinh reached into a small box and pulled out a handful of cheap plastic chips. He dumped them in a pile and pushed them toward me.

“Hey there, Tinh,” I said. I sat back in my chair. “I thought we said no gambling.”

“No, no. No gambling,” he said. “Just for fun.” A wide grin spread across his face. He shuffled and dealt the cards. “Actually,” he added, “you never want to play against me. Not for real. I always win.” Noted, I thought. I lifted the shot glass and tipped the rice wine into my throat. Immediately, my fight-or-flight instinct kicked in: it was the strongest stuff I had ever tasted. My face must have reflected my struggle, because Tinh and Mr. Phuc both laughed.

Once the cards were dealt, Tinh looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “OK,” he said in a hoarse whisper, “now I show you how to win. Look at your cards.” I lifted my cards: twenty. Tinh lifted his and showed me his hand. He had nineteen. He collected the cards, shuffled, and redealt.

“Look at your cards again,” he said. I lifted them: twenty-one. Tinh lifted his: twenty. So he was counting cards, I thought. Simple enough. I asked him about it.

“No, no,” he said. He clutched his chest. “Never say I am counting cards. I am good dealer. Many people say I am very lucky. But I can show you how to be lucky with me.” He showed me the method: if he curled the fingers of his left hand, the other player had an ace. When he placed his right hand over his left, that was the signal to raise. It continued. Each time I got it right, Mr. Phuc laughed and poured another shot of the rice wine.

“You are a good card player,” said Tinh as he shuffled the cards. By this time, I had a small fortune in chips in front of me. “Maybe you come with me to the club. I get you in the VIP room. We can make a lot of money together.”

I took the newest shot of rice wine and laughed through the pain. “I don’t know about that,” I said. “I’m not much of a card player. I don’t even have the money I’d need to play.”

Tinh made a face of disgust. “No, you are a good player,” he protested. “You just need more practice.” His cell phone rang, and he answered it in rapid-fire Vietnamese. I looked at Mr. Phuc. He returned my gaze with a lop-sided smile. Tinh flipped his phone closed with a snap.

“Good news. That was the businessman from Hanoi. He wants me to deal for him again tonight. He says I am his lucky dealer.” He winked at me. “He come pick me up in one hour. You come with me. Maybe we get lucky, too.” He picked his teeth with the long nail of his pinky finger. It wasn’t hard to read between the lines: Tinh wanted me to go to the club and help him fleece this rich asshole.

“I don’t know about that, Tinh,” I said. I began to stand up. “I should get going.”

“No, no, you stay!” said Mr. Phuc. He bolted from his chair and grabbed my wrist. He must have seen the panic on my face because he relaxed his grip on me. “More happy juice! You sit. You sit.” He sat back down and poured another round of shots. What the hell, I thought. One more. I eased back into my seat. With a little flair, Mr. Phuc lifted his shot glass toward me. “Chủ sức khỏe,” he said—to good health. We shot our rice wine. It went down a lot easier than before.

It didn’t seem like any time had passed, but suddenly there was a clatter behind us. Tinh stood up. “Oh, you are early!” he said. I turned to see a man in a nylon jacket and a tie enter the room. In his left hand he carried a small satchel. “This is Mr. Quoc, from Hanoi!” Tinh said to me. He turned to Mr. Quoc: “Bạn tôi tên là Amarillo Slim. Bạn ấy là người Mỹ!” He punctuated his statement with a quick laugh. I knew enough Vietnamese to know he was telling Mr. Quoc that I was from America, and that I was the famous card player Amarillo Slim. He was making a joke. Funny.

The businessman grabbed my hand and shook it. He held the grip as though I were a balloon that might float away. “Hello, Em-rillo,” he said. He leaned in and hissed like a conspirator: “America is number one!”

“OK, OK,” said Tinh. “We have a little time before we go to the club. I was just showing Amarillo how to play Hanoi Blackjack. Maybe we can have practice game before we go to the club?” Mr. Quoc shook his head in agreement, and before I could say anything, he had taken a seat beside me at the table. Tinh slid a pile of practice chips to him and dealt the cards.

“Just one hand, Tinh,” I said. “I really have to go.”

“It is no problem!” said Tinh. I looked at my hand. From the corner of my eye, Tinh gave me the signal to bet. I threw out $20 worth of chips from the pile in front of me. Almost immediately, Mr. Quoc raised me $200. I looked at Tinh and raised an eyebrow.

“It is OK,” Tinh said. “This is practice. You use these.” He tapped the table near my pile of training chips. I figured I had about $250 worth of plastic tokens. I slid the chips into the middle of the table. Predictably, I won the hand.

“Oh, you are good!” said Mr. Quoc. He produced a stack of U.S. bills and handed them to Tinh. Without hesitation, Tinh doled out new chips and dealt. The whole thing happened so quickly I barely had time to register it. I knew that the game had changed now: money had been exchanged and a new hand had been dealt. It had become real. If I got out now while I was up, everyone would laugh and call it a “practice game”—there was no way Mr. Quoc would actually pay me the money I’d won. But if I lost or folded, they’d insist that I pay up one way or another. Visions of being huddled into an ATM at knifepoint lurked in my head.

My best strategy, I decided, was to play this hand and get out before Tinh could deal again. I picked up my cards and looked at them. When I lifted my eyes, Tinh winked at me. He wanted me to keep going, to just trust him that, together, we would fleece this gullible jerk. I glanced at Mr. Quoc beside me. His hair was slicked back with what looked like engine oil and a heavy gold watch circled his thin wrist. He sure looked like a rich creep, I thought, but something about him seemed off: he was too engrossed in his cards, too oblivious to Tinh’s theatrics. For the first time, I noticed his tie; it was cheap and poorly knotted, not at all like a rich businessman’s; it hung from his neck like a noose.

As expected, I won the hand. Before I could say anything, Tinh began dealing another. It was then that I took my out.

“This is my last hand, guys,” I said. “I have someplace to be. It’s been fun.”

Tinh’s eyes widened; he shook his head. But Mr. Quoc, calm and smiling, simply said, “This is no problem, Em-rill.”

Tinh signaled me and I drew a card. Nineteen. Mr. Quoc had a ten showing. I decided on a token bet and pushed $20 in chips to the center of the table. Mr. Quoc groaned and bent over. When he straightened up, he held a brick of $100 bills. He dropped it onto the table. “I raise five thousand USD,′′ he said. He showed his teeth to me. “I like to win.”

The shoe had dropped. I looked at Tinh. He winked at me like he had something in his eye. Somehow, Mr. Quoc remained oblivious. I had two choices: agree to match a $5,000 bet, or fold and possibly be on the hook for the $250 Tinh had “lent” me. I decided to take my chances.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t have that kind of money on me,” I said. I stood up. The door to the street was open behind me. If things went bad, I figured I could at least find a chicken coop to hide in.

Suddenly, Tinh raised from his chair.

“I can guarantee his bet!” he yelled. “I am sure Amarillo has plenty of money in his hotel room. He can pay me back later.” It was a bold assumption for Tinh to make, and it was wrong. I began to protest when Mr. Quoc interrupted me:

“No, no. I need to see money now.”

If these two were in on a ruse to fleece me, which they almost certainly were, then this new wrinkle made my head spin. Had Mr. Quoc turned the tables? Had he decided the night hadn’t gone as planned and modified the rules to demand money from whoever could produce it first? Tinh remained silent. The room felt like a vacuum. Then Tinh rose and walked into a back room. When he returned, he held a small bag in his hand. He reached into it, pulled out a wad of crumpled bills, and placed it on the table. Mr. Quoc stood to count the money. As he did, his jacket shifted to reveal a large knife sheathed to his ribcage. He finished counting and glared at Tinh.

“This is two thousand USD,” he said.

“It is what I have,” said Tinh.

“No. I need to see all. I no trust.” Mr. Quoc was insistent. He puffed out his chest. “I am businessman! I take anything. Gold is okay too.”

They say that second chances don’t happen often, but it was here that I saw mine. “If you fellas have the time,” I interjected, “I can go back to my hotel and get my money.”

The mood changed in an instant. Tinh hatched a plan: Mr. Quoc would stay behind to guard the cards while he and I went to my hotel. As Tinh sealed our cards in envelopes and placed them in a safe, Mrs. Phuc emerged from the kitchen. It was only the second time I had seen her that night. There was a sad look on her face as our eyes connected. Then I went into the night.


The taxi arrived, and I climbed into the back seat. Tinh slid in beside me. I hadn’t expected Mr. Phuc to join us, but he got into the front seat beside the driver. When Tinh asked me the address of my hotel, I told him I couldn’t remember. Mr. Phuc, however, hadn’t forgotten the location of the park where we had met; we agreed that the taxi would stop there, and I would walk to my room to get my money. Then we’d all return together to finish the card game.

The road coiled like a spring through the countryside. Dimly lit quán nhậus pierced the dark at odd intervals like reflections of streetlamps in a greasy pond. As we drove past them, I caught glimpses of the men sitting within, their faces tired and drawn as they slouched over rice and cheap beer. Beyond them, the darkness of the fields was impenetrable. I was glad I hadn’t had to run from Mr. Phuc’s house into the night.

The entire time, Tinh and Mr. Phuc kept me busy with questions:

“What is food like in America?”

“Do you live in California?”

“How many rooms are in your house?”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

Finally, Tinh dropped the big question:

“Five thousand USD is very much money. This is very exciting! What will you do with your winnings?”

I knew, of course, that I was not going to win that game. I was never intended to. The whole thing was clear now: I’d return with as much money as I could get and resume the game, only to have Tinh signal me right into Mr. Quoc’s winning hand. At worst, they’d skip the pretenses and just rob me outright. I kicked myself for not seeing it from the beginning and for allowing the scam to get to this point. I imagined the real Amarillo Slim would have seen through it from the start.

When we arrived at the park, Mr. Phuc told the taxi driver to pull over. I opened the door and stepped out. Incredibly, Tinh and Mr. Phuc remained in the car.

“I’ll be right back,” I said to Tinh.

“No problem, Amarillo,” said Tinh. “We be right here!” In the front seat, Mr. Phuc leered. As our eyes met, his mouth stretched wider. He brought his left hand to his chest, thumb raised.

I sauntered across the park in half-time to the pounding in my chest. As I reached one of the narrow alleys that meander maze-like through the residential blocks, I darted left. I ran through the alleyways until my lungs felt like they could take no more, and I pushed through it. When I finally reached the darkened beach, I collapsed beneath a palm tree. As I gasped for breath, I thought about all the travel stories I had read, all the people who had inspired me to travel in the first place: Paul Theroux, Graham Greene, even that cranky bastard Bill Bryson. I’d assumed they all traveled in solitary, scripted purity, their itineraries serendipitously arranged to allow for maximum, beatific experience. But as I coughed and sputtered on a beach halfway across the world, it hit me: the ugly parts of the world, the stuff you travel to escape from—the assholes, the tedium, the traffic jams, the trash on the sidewalks and in the gutters—it was everywhere. It was pervasive. It was just the part that no one wrote about.

I waited beneath the palm tree until I was confident that Tinh and Mr. Phuc hadn’t followed me. As I made my way back to my homestay, every shadow became a drunken grandfather or a knife-wielding businessman. By the time I finally arrived, I was shaking with adrenaline. I wasn’t surprised to find Ethan sitting at the quán nhậu next door with a beer in his hand. I took a stool beside him.

“Jesus, mate, what the hell ’appened to you?” he said. I looked at myself. My shirt was heavy with sweat. Sand covered my arms and legs. I ordered a beer and launched into my tale. When I mentioned the card game, Ethan burst into laughter.

“Does this look familiar?” He curled the fingers of his left hand. “Nine.” He placed his right hand over his left. “Raise.”

I looked at him with amazement. “It happened to you, too?”

“Yeah. Didn’t I tell you last night?”

“No, Ethan,” I said. “I don’t recall you saying anything about that.”

“Yeah, it was right before they told me about the grandmother.”

“How far did you get with the game?”

“Oh, ho, mate—I stopped that shite as soon as they pulled out the chips.”

“Jesus, Ethan,” I said. “Now I have to stop going to the market.”


From the November 2021 issue


My Wife’s Hip Replacement

Matthew Wherttam

My wife, Julie, needed to replace her cartilage-less right hip but didn’t want to be sliced open, so I wasn’t badgering her about it. Like lots of other little old ladies, she waddled when she walked, and she waddled on account of her bad hip; and just like those other little old ladies, she was made grim by all the pain. But there were still other old women who looked jolly, even when they were waddling. They could have been waddling because they were overweight. And maybe they had gotten overweight because they were jolly. As you probably know, Betty Boop has taught us that you get fat when you laugh too much. She even sang a song about it: “Keep Your Girlish Figure.”

My grandmother was fat. But she also had a cartilage-less hip. And when she waddled she looked grim. Then her assholic son-in-law talked her and the rest of the family into having her bad hip surgically replaced back when such surgery was not much more than experimental. She died. And the rest of the family became furious. Back then I was too young to be furious, but I was old enough to be confused.

After Julie crashed her car on account of her bad and painful right hip, she found an orthopedic surgeon who replaced that hip and sent her home the same day. It was winter. She slept that night on the sofa in our first-floor living room. No going up and down any stairs for her. Her new hip was too new. The next morning, though, she fainted while rising from the toilet in our ridiculously small, first-floor powder room. She smacked her head against the powder room wall on her way down and also tangled her legs up enough to make us all suspect that her new right hip might have come undone.

My daughter Beth had been beside her as she was going down. In fact, she slipped through Beth’s fingers.

Beth was the wrong person to have seen that. She already saw cancer in every callus and wart, so seeing her mother’s eyes roll back in her head while she was fainting hadn’t been cool.

She called 911 and the police and the paramedics arrived. They arrived simultaneously.

They were all in uniforms; they were all fat; and they were all wearing masks on account of the pandemic. They had arranged themselves like bowling pins on my front steps, and when I opened the door, they tumbled in. Then two of the paramedics began yelling at each other through their masks. Was this the way first responders usually responded?

Their argument was heated but not overheated, and the police had sense enough to retreat back outside my front door.

A tall, fat, black paramedic, who was the leader of the paramedical team, was one of the two guys yelling. He was arguing with a short, fat, white guy. He shut him up. That white guy was more than fat. He was bulging. His fleshy cheeks stuck part way out of his mask and crowded up and around his tiny, gray eyes. Santa Claus’s cheeks bunch up a lot, but he is not ordinarily arguing with people, and he does not usually wear a mask.

And aside from the yelling, why was every paramedic on that paramedical team fat? Shouldn’t they have been thin? They are supposed to be bringers of good health. Shouldn’t they at least have looked the part? Don’t barbers usually have good haircuts? Don’t tailors wear well-fitting clothes? And aren’t leading ladies and leading men usually fun to see when you’re at the movies and you want to be seeing people who are fun to look at? So, again, why were these paramedical guys so fat? And even if they had little interest in their own health, shouldn’t they at least have been thin enough to get quickly to any artery that was spurting blood? That contentious, fat, white guy wasn’t getting anywhere in a hurry.

The tall, fat, black guy took my wife’s pulse and blood pressure, shined a penlight into her eyes, and then told her she had probably not suffered a concussion but she should return to her hospital anyway. But she wasn’t agreeing to that. In her opinion, her hospital and all other hospitals were no safer than long stretches of quicksand. Fortunately, that fat, black guy and the rest of his fat paramedical team didn’t press the issue. They left. And they left with the police. They all left en masse, like a football team that had just given up a touchdown.

But Beth kept insisting that Julie go back to her hospital. Beth interrupted her own badgering only long enough to announce that that short, fat, white paramedic had been the biggest jerk in the bunch. He was the fattest. Meanwhile, I began feeding Julie canned and crushed pineapple mixed with cottage cheese. I didn’t know it at the time, but our neighbors had seen those paramedics and police come and go, and they must have suspected that some catastrophe may have been in progress. So they wanted to do something nice for us, and in the coming week they brought us enough cake and cookies to make us fat.

Although she had also seen her mother go down, my older daughter, Annie, had not been nearly as alarmed by it as Beth had. Annie, herself, is fat. Not that fat but at least ponderous. And she is also phlegmatic. But while she is phlegmatic, she is not dumb. In fact, she was the first of us to realize we should have had a commode in our living room so that my wife would not have had to use that hard-to-get-to toilet in our ridiculously small, first-floor powder room. And Annie even went to a nearby surgical supply store and bought such a commode and also a battery-powered blood pressure cuff and a thermometer. But that was two days later, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

After the pineapple and cottage cheese had been inside Julie for a few minutes, she agreed to return to her hospital.

So we all drove back to that hospital, but because those were coronavirus days, Julie was only going to be allowed one visitor at a time. Beth was elected to be that visitor. As I’ve already suggested, she believes that everyone is on the verge of death for some reason or other, and yet she is also the most levelheaded of the three of us, and that was why she was chosen to be the first visitor. Beth led my wife back into her hospital while Annie and I drove to one of the hospital’s many surrounding parking lots.

To pass the time, Annie read me stuff from her smartphone. She loves to read. She could have been an editor except that whenever she finds something she really likes, she reads it again and then reads it some more; as an editor, no good manuscript would ever have gotten beyond her desk and out to market.

She read me stories about “virtual real estate.”

“Virtual real estate” is situated in “multiverses.” And “multiverses” are universes that are not our universe. And this “virtual real estate” is being bought and sold for millions of dollars in cryptocurrency. And, finally, cryptocurrency is not something you can put in your pocket; it’s something that exists in the ether, and fluctuates in value, and can become unreachable if you lose your password, and also can disappear if your cryptocurrency manager has a tendency to steal. This all made sense to me. After all, while Annie was reading this to me, streams of money were electronically flowing into my wife’s hospital; its doctors and nurses were looking more at their instruments than at her; those instruments were spitting their own electrons in all different directions. There was something virtual, intangible, and indirect in all that, so why not also have “virtual real estate” located in “multiverses” and being bought with money that is not exactly there?

My wife was getting X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and maybe even some multi-axial tomographic imaging to see where that new right hip of hers might have gone awry if, indeed, it had gone anywhere; and while we hoped that at least some of what was being done to her was being done for medical reasons, we knew a lot of it was being done for the benefit of medical malpractice attorneys.

Maybe she had a good case against her doctors and that hospital. Maybe she had collapsed because she had become dehydrated. And maybe she had become dehydrated because she had not been given enough to drink after she had been cut up. She had waited a long time to get into one of that hospital’s recovery rooms and onto an intravenous bag. And that could have been because her hospital had been too full of other cut up people to fit them all into recovery rooms all at once. And in his closing arguments, a dazzling medical malpractice attorney might be able to convince a dazzle-able jury that that profit-mongering hospital and its doctors would have allowed my wife to shrivel into a fig if it meant a bigger bottom line for them.

I will concede that even in a perfect world, orthopedic surgeons should be allowed to replace more than one hip per day. And in that same day, they should even be allowed some time on a golf course. But since she had collapsed, shouldn’t my wife’s surgeon now be questioning the density of his own schedule and the overall density of the cut up and waiting patients who filled his hospital each day? And shouldn’t he be reconsidering his practice of replacing an entire hip and then sending his patient home that very same day?

Doctors and nurses now have dominion over too much fancy machinery and too much graph paper. Too many computers and TV screens come between them and their patients. It leads to overconfidence and inattention. Medieval barber surgeons, on the other hand, cut our hair, pulled our aching teeth, and chopped away all the lumps in our faces and throats; and even though they also sent us home the same day, at least they didn’t bother us with all sorts of fancy machinery. And our medical records back then were whatever remained in our barber surgeon’s drunken head the next time we needed a haircut. Best of all, there were no lawyers back then—at least no medical malpractice lawyers. Centuries went by before any lawyer ever asked any doctor what in hell he had actually been doing to his patients. Priests had been at center stage back in the Middle Ages. Doctors were killing us but that was okay because in those days, God was actually deciding whether and when we were going to die. And after we died priests were saying things in Latin and putting us into the ground and then saying more things in Latin.

Beth got tired and I became my wife’s next sole visitor.

Hearing about “virtual real estate” and “multiverses” and cryptocurrency and being with Annie had been fun. But I was glad I was the next visitor and not Annie because if Annie had gone next, Beth and I would then have been alone together waiting in the car, and Beth and I never have much fun when we are alone together. She’s too able to hate me, and I too often deserve it.

My wife’s X-rays and CT scans and MRIs were finally all taken, and toward evening it was decided that she would stay in her hospital overnight.

That hospital was more crowded that day than it had been the day before, and so she and many other cut up people were again waiting for too few beds in too few recovery rooms. And while they were waiting, they were being stored in rolling beds along a wall in a dim and crowded hallway and being bumped every now and then by other beds being wheeled on through. That hallway was like a funeral parlor filled with coffins that contained bodies that were almost but not quite dead. And the light in that hallway was dirty yellow, and it flickered from time to time. And so Julie appeared and disappeared like an actor in one of those early, herky- jerky, silent movies.

Every one of us in that hallway was masked on account of the pandemic. Some of us were already infected, and others of us were going to be infected, but we were all masked. And the only place in that entire hospital that had any chance of actually being covid-free was a special covid-free wing. So my wife was now waiting to be sent to a room in the covid-free wing. And if, hypothetically, the covid-free wing had been in one of those multiverses Annie had been reading about, then it might actually have been covid-free, and its only viruses would have been computer viruses.

The light in that hospital hallway really was half-hearted, and when evening fully arrived, that light lost still more of its enthusiasm. The walls of that hallway were beige or tan or some other such color, and as the minutes ticked by, things were not getting any cheerier. Not many of those cut up people along the hospital hallway were being wheeled away to recovery rooms, and as their rollable beds accumulated, they and their beds began to look to me like planes at a rainy airport where no one is getting cleared for takeoff. Too few nurses were doing too many things to too many patients and nothing much was happening. When a doctor did appear, which was rare, he looked less like a doctor and more like a sports referee on a field surrounded by unhappy athletes and an unhappy and unruly crowd of spectators. His stethoscope looked like a whistle, and his clipboard could well have been filled with the rules of the game rather than any information about any of those cut up people lining the walls.

My wife had a specific nurse. Her name was Danielle or Desiree or something else starting with a ‘D.’ She was quite pretty and well-built and genuinely pleased to be attending to my wife, whom she called “ladybug” because she looked so small under her hospital blankets. It was good that this nurse was cheery. It was good that anyone in that hallway was cheery. Many years earlier my favorite uncle had been in a hospital and had also looked tiny in his hospital bed. He was jaundiced—very jaundiced. Before they let me in to see him, they warned me he was jaundiced. But it turned out that he was yellower than the long pages of a legal pad. I was not happy to see that. He had to cheer me up!

There was humming and clicking and clinking and dripping and other subdued, medico-mechanical noises going on in my wife’s action-packed and yet static hallway; and since she had been doped up all day, she was, by now, not saying much for long stretches of time, so I began listening to other conversations.

Somewhere in the nearby shadows, a gaggle of nurses were telling each other that earlier a man had arrived in the emergency room with $16,000 in cash in his winter coat, and if they could have figured out how to make off with his cash, they could now be in Las Vegas having all sorts of fun.

An old man in a nearby bed was talking through his mask and into his cell phone and saying:

“Now dear, in the bottom left drawer of the desk in my study is a blue tin of my finest pipe tobacco, which you must take at once to my friend Howard….”

And then he fell silent and he stayed silent. And then he said: “Yes, dear. I am forgetting about my tobacco now. I am forgetting about it, and I am concentrating on getting better instead.”

Another patient, a ghostly lady lying in a ghostly bed, was also talking through her covid mask into her cell phone. She was speaking very rapidly in a foreign language that was not Spanish, French, or Italian. Her tone was urgent. She had quite a lot to say. And she was speaking with too much energy to be dying any time soon. Maybe the person at the other end of her line was about to die.

That hospital hallway was now positively bursting with activity&mdashexpensive and billable activity. And amid all that activity, nothing was changing. My wife had become impossible to talk to. Her serious thoughts were gone, and the single words she was saying now and then weren’t making much of an impression on me either.

At 8 p.m. visiting hours were over. That’s what the hospital’s scratchy public address system said. A very fat and masked security officer in a uniform materialized, and that dreary hallway became even less fun to be in. I wanted to remain near my wife, but I also wanted to get the hell out of there. A second fat and masked security officer then joined the first one. Fat, masked men in uniform were, apparently, the order of the day. Those two fat security guards were not looking directly at me, but they were looking in my direction. Other visitors were saying goodbye and departing, so I got up to leave. I touched Julie lightly. I was afraid I might break her. Then she asked me to ask Danielle or Desiree for something, but her nurse was busy with another patient’s instruments, so without waiting for her to turn around, I announced that my wife wanted her, and then I left without waiting for her to answer me. In fact, things were so poorly lit in that hallway that I wasn’t sure whether Danielle or Desiree had actually been busy with another patient’s instruments. She could have been getting her own smartphone out and fired up so that she would be ready to buy plane tickets to Las Vegas the instant the next guy with $16,000 in cash arrived at the emergency room.

When I was altogether gone from that particular hallway and into other cluttered and gloomy parts of that hospital, I encountered still more masked, fat men in uniforms. They didn’t seem surprised to see me, so I kept walking, taking care not to pass through any doors marked Doctors and Nurses Only. I must have been going in sort of the right direction because I finally found myself outside that hospital and inside a cold, dark winter night but nowhere near my car or my daughters. That hospital had smelled and even tasted like antiseptics, antiseptics that hadn’t been killing off coronavirus.

I was now staggering around like a drunkard. That hospital had acres of parking lots and acres and acres of parked cars. And all the things around me were not well lit. My hours with my wife had been worse than the time, long ago, that I had spent with my very yellow uncle. And now I was lost. I had been lost when my wife crashed down to the floor that morning, and lost amidst all those police and paramedics, and lost in all that “virtual” real estate, and lost in that hospital, and now I was lost in its parking lots, and I was also all alone.


From the February 2023 issue


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